by Catharine Leggett
So many of them Naomi had never met, the people who populated Eric’s life. Each one saying how well she was holding up, especially given the suddenness of his death, as they pressed their warm, moist palms into hers and offered their condolences and encouragement.
I knew him from the Rotary, from Kinsmen. He helped with Christmas hampers. We worked out together at the gym. We curled together. We were golf buddies. We belonged to the same bike club. We were in toastmasters. We were members of the Walk for Prostate committee. We volunteered for the Habitat for Humanity. We met on Thursday nights for pub darts. We were fishing buddies. We worked together. A parade of introductions as they came to say goodbye.
They spoke of his disposition: considerate, generous, caring, giving, creative, outgoing. An amazing sense of humour, a leader, an innovative thinker, a tireless worker, generous, a community member, full of surprises, so proud of his family. Many said it was a wonder they hadn’t met Naomi until today, and how regrettable under such a sad occasion. Some looked at her as if wondering if she really could be his wife. But here she was, in the flesh, solidly filling in any hazy notions they might have had of her.
Monday, moments after finishing her yoga class and taking her phone off mute and seeing a list of unknown calls filling the screen, the phone rang. Eric had collapsed near the eighth hole. An ambulance was called.
She ran out of the gym, across the parking lot to the car. At a stoplight, the act of waiting stretched on, magnified by an emergency. Should she run the red light? Should she cry? Bash her fist against the steering wheel? How should a person act? She anticipated the green, concentrated on putting pressure on the gas pedal. She noticed everything – the height of the light stand, the giant X through a no parking sign, a man leaning forward as he walked ‑- and somehow nothing seemed familiar. Time flexed, extended and contracted, all at once. She didn’t recognize her usual route, though she wasn’t lost.
She thrust away thoughts of how serious Eric’s condition might be, allowing them no time to fully shape. He’d be fine; the heat had gotten to him on the course. He’d suffered a spell, a setback. He’d be fine.
An older man with a fringe of white hair, pink scalp and a fiery complexion, asked, “Was there any indication, that this was coming?”
“None at all,” Naomi said. In fact, Eric just got the all-clear from the family doctor.
At the hospital, as they were prepping Eric for surgery, a doctor came out to speak to Naomi about what the procedure might entail. Naomi nodded, but she wasn’t hearing; she was thinking how the surgeon seemed to be wrinkle free, except in the neck. She must have had a little nip tuck, maybe she had a friend who did it for free. Surgeons would have surgeon friends, wouldn’t they?
After, when she came out to explain what had gone wrong, something about total blockage, Naomi laughed. This woman, this surgeon, couldn’t possibly know what she was talking about; she was lying or misinformed, or playing some hideous joke on her. That was it, a joke! She could even be an imposter.
A grief counsellor joined Naomi in the waiting room. Her reassuring voice explained how tragic news was processed differently and how grieving was an individual process – there was no right way, no wrong way. Naomi should let her emotions out however they needed to come; she shouldn’t hold back or be embarrassed. She had one hand on Naomi’s back, the other on her arm. Naomi felt confined, trapped by the stranger with a silken voice, and oddly vulnerable dressed in her yoga clothes.
When Naomi brought her yoga outfit home and held it for Eric to see, he eyed it as if it might be a small animal that would escape her hands and run up the curtains. “How does that help you be more flexible?” he asked, as he unloosened his tie, and she repeated what she thought she’d already explained. Some moves had you practically upside down, the stretches so extended you almost fell over. “And for that you need a uniform?” he asked.
“A workout outfit, yes,” she said. He wanted to know the cost, and she shaved a bit off. He never begrudged her money, that wasn’t it, but he had the need to say something, to give some kind of qualifier. What she knew, and he would never say, was that he didn’t want her taking on anything new, taking steps in her own life, because it altered the balance of his. It wasn’t that he wanted her home either, not explicitly; he wanted her how she was, unchanging, something he could rely on. A ballast, he sometimes called her during moments of affection; she was his ballast, and a ballast must stay rooted, must hold firm.
“He was so outgoing,” a woman with smooth blond hair said. “He could always make me laugh.”
“He had a great sense of humour,” Naomi agreed. How easily he worked up a room, got people going, filled it with his charm and sense of timing. But when it was just the two of them, he became restless, as if being inside his own skin caused him considerable discomfort. As if he was trapped inside himself.
When the children came, she quit her job and stayed home, shutting the door on the world of business, insulating herself in their development and in domesticity. The inconsolable temper tantrums of a two-year-old became preferable to the ego-driven mood swings of her forty-something boss. When the kids were little, Eric came home late, stepping into the mayhem of end-of-the-day crankiness, slipped into his biking costume, and headed for the trails with his buddies. Later, after the kids had gone to bed, they had dinner together, though she usually only picked away at a salad, having eaten earlier with the kids.
When the kids got older, he became more involved, their mature brains more agreeable to him. Sometimes he subbed for her and took the boys to soccer, football and hockey, or drove Jennifer to figure skating and dance. He even managed to go to some of her recitals.
One-by-one the kids left home, and the house filled slowly with a crushing silence. The sound of the door closing as Eric left for one of his commitments seemed to grow louder, seemed to seal her in more tightly.
Naomi looked down the reception line at her three adult children as they received guests and condolences, and felt a surge of pride. They were holding up well. Like most kids, after they left home, they’d been busy filling their lives with work, school and their busy social schedules. They thought they knew their dad. They’d think of him often now that he was gone, sort through memories, reshape them into a workable story of how involved he was as a father, see him in a vibrant light. They wouldn’t remember how, more often, he was either at the office or working on one of his many projects. Naomi was the one who could be counted on, with boring predictability. When the time came, her light would not shine as brightly.
After the reception, when they went back to the house, would she tell them then, when they were sifting through the comments about how people remembered their father? Would she tell them and see their looks of disbelief and uncertainty that would challenge everything they ever knew or accepted about him – about themselves? Would they believe her?
“He gave a very moving and very funny speech at Kinsmen last year,” a man with curly brown hair was saying. “He could have been a stand-up comedian.”
“I’ll never forget the time he showed up at my door with a Christmas hamper,” an older woman with stooped shoulders and a walker said, her voice quaking with age. “I was so grateful.”
Naomi planned activities against the house’s stillness, after the kids left. Every Wednesday she watched Bollywood movies with Carla, her next door neighbour – who Eric called the neighbourhood gossip – and that ignited a desire to take up belly dancing. Together, they signed up for classes at the university, then started their own group and met every Tuesday at Naomi’s, fifteen women who came in their sweat pants, leotards, shorts, sashes, long skirts, and strapped on multi-stranded beads around their hips. When Naomi put on hers, raised her hands above her head, began the slow undulations released by the music, heard the chatter of the beads – water gushing over loose stones in a faraway brook – she flowed out of herself.
The group became accomplished dancers. They received invitations to perform: senior’s residences, schools, the community centre, the library, birthday parties. The Swivelling Hips started to have a reputation.
Naomi spotted two of them down the line, making their way towards her. They’d come for her, since they didn’t know Eric. He only ever paused at the living room door to catch a quick glimpse of their gyrations, then vanished upstairs to change and head back out the door.
Eric fidgeted when people complimented her on her slimness and fitness and she told them it was on account of the belly dancing. “They don’t need to know the details,” he said. Sometimes at the grocery store, someone would step up and say they’d seen her dance with the group at some event. They always said what fun the women looked like they were having. He’d walk away. He didn’t mind her doing it, she didn’t think, but he didn’t want to hear about it.
For a long time, Naomi had trouble sleeping. She’d wake up in the night and feel distressed, with no idea of why. Worry tumbled her thoughts in the darkness, and in the light of day these same thoughts bleached away.
One night, lying awake looking up at the ceiling, she had an idea that put an end to her troubled nights. She would go to India. She would go alone. She didn’t know why she settled on this, but it felt right. She kept the plan to herself, searching the internet for a travel group, and signed on for a three-week tour that would concentrate on the Ganges. At first, the only person she told was Carla. “But why alone?” Carla asked.
The night of the women’s shelter auction fundraiser, for which Eric was a key organizer through his company’s sponsorship, she was out with Carla to a fashion show. On the way to the car after the event, she spotted Eric across the street, walking with a tall woman, headed in the opposite direction, miles away from the women’s shelter. They were laughing and talking, stepping briskly, and the woman’s shoulder-length hair blew in the wind. Carla saw him too, but didn’t say anything, as if she knew something Naomi didn’t. Later, Naomi asked him if he went anywhere after the fundraiser and he said no, he hadn’t, and turned off the bedside lamp.
She let it drop. She shifted all her thoughts on the India trip. Eric was surprised when she told him her plan. “India? Really? So far away? By yourself?” Not exactly, but with a travel group of strangers. He started to look at her differently, to pull his head back away from her, wondering perhaps who she was or who she was becoming. And what impact that would have on him.
Naomi wanted to kick off her shoes; her feet hurt from standing too long. The stories, this oral shrine to Eric, kept a steady flow past her. She looked forward to going home and stretching out on the couch, ordering in some food, taking in the sounds of her children who would disappear back to their lives in a few days, and she would once again face silence.
When she stepped off the plane she felt as if she was drowning in the Indian air. Spice ridden, sweet soured by the smell of decay, effluence, street cooking and flower vendors, shook her awake after the long flight.
The tour took her to several places along the Ganges, but after two and a half weeks, when they returned to the Holy City of Varanasi, she told the Global Trekker guide she would extend her stay. He discouraged her decision, but eventually agreed after she paid him more money for the administrative costs of re-arranging her return trip with another group in six weeks, and for his time. She phoned home and left a message for Eric, then she turned her cell phone off for the rest of her visit. Now she was “out there”, away from him, away from everyone, on her own, suspended in an existence that people could only wonder about and not know about with any kind of certainty.
Naomi found a room in Varanasi with shared cooking facilities in a quiet building close to the Ganges. Every day she went to watch the people worship at the river. The meditative chants of their voices soothed and reassured, though she didn’t understand a word. She met a man, a silver-haired man with bright eyes and an inquisitive intellect, a widower and a professor of religion at the university. He was studying ritual, and came here every day to observe and interview the worshippers who prayed by the river and immerse themselves in the sacred water. She tried to explain ritual where she came from, in Canada, but it sounded more like routine, structures to prevent boredom, treatments against spiritual numbness. He said it sounded busy, perhaps not the most soothing, nothing like what the people gathered at the Ganges sought. They had long discussions about faith, belief, release, ritual, worship, what it meant to feel connected, and about the nature of time and memory. She avoided telling him anything about herself, the life she came from, rerouting his questions about her as quickly as possible. She fell into his voice, listened for its lilt and rhythms, broken often by the sound of laughter.
One night, awake in the heat and awash in the sounds coming through the window – screech owls, footsteps on the street, the shouts of late-night hawkers – she went to the window. Moonlight showered over the rooftops that descended down to the water. It reminded her of a painting. She slipped light cotton pants on over her nightgown, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and followed the narrow stairways to the river, the same route she took every day, though now in darkness it seemed unfamiliar. It surprised her how many worshippers there were at night. Chanting, their hands held before them in prayer, their voices sounded as natural as the drone of crickets or the whoosh of the wind, as they stood with faces down to the water or upturned to the moon.
She removed her sandals, stepped down the stairs and slipped into the river, careful not to make a splash, surprised by its warmth. A mild stink rose up; she would never dream of wading into such water at home. No one noticed her or picked her out as an interloper, drawn there by nothing more than an interest in what others held sacred. She waded out until she was up to her shoulders, held her breath, and stepped out further until the water was over her head. She stayed there, completely submerged. She opened her eyes and stared into darkness.
Panic seized her, gripped her neck, struck her heart; she wanted to leap to the surface and breathe, but resisted, as if this were some kind of test and rising too soon would leave her permanently damaged. Her eyes bulged with the pressure of holding her breath and she thought she might pass out. Through the murkiness, a ball of light floated towards her and stopped just before her. Inside its glow she saw her house. The walls of the house fell away and she peered into her kitchen, where everyone was seated around the table, talking, laughing. All of them, much younger. Calmness came over her; she could stay this way forever, suspended in time with this vision.
Her lungs were about to give. She pushed up to the water’s surface and choked in the air. At the river’s bank, as she started to the steps leading out, a hand came down and gripped hers and a melodic voice said, “Let me help you.”
“Recreational or ritual?” the professor asked.
Naomi stared at him as he stood bathed in the blue moonlight. “I’ve no idea.”
The professor smiled, and gave a little laugh. He asked for no further explanation. He escorted her home, assisting her up the narrow stairs. She invited him in. Without saying another word, she led him to her bed. They held each other until morning came.
In the weeks that followed, he asked her to stay in Varanasi. She told him she was married and he said he knew. “Nevertheless,” he said. “I shall still miss you. I will miss our daily conversations. You have put me in touch with my life and my late wife, I believe.” He held his hand affectionately over his heart. “Our conversations remind me of the ones I had with her. She was a very clever woman.”
Tiredness, stifling heat inside the funeral home, and the ongoing stories about Eric made her long for this to be over, and yet, as she peered down the line she saw there were still about twenty more to pass, mostly middle-aged men and a tall woman with shoulder-length hair she thought she should know, but couldn’t place. Before she had time to think of where it might have been she’d seen her before, a fellow member of The Swivelling Hips stepped up and gave her a mighty hug.
When she got back from India, Eric met her at the airport with flowers. He brought her home, poured her wine, made her toast and jam and tucked her into bed. He’d taken the night off from one of his activities, but the next night he was gone again, and Carla came over to hear about her trip.
After a couple glasses of wine, Carla said she had something to tell her, and she wasn’t sure if she should, but the information had kept her awake at night. “Here goes,” she said, taking a sip before proceeding. After Naomi left for India, the woman they’d seen on the street with Eric, the night of the fashion show, came to Naomi’s house. Several times her car stayed in the driveway overnight.
Naomi had been far away in India, his ballast gone, having what she could call her own affair, though there was nothing more than the embrace. They’d clung together as an act of remembrance, a human monument of longing, desire, cherishing what each of them once had. She knew then, throughout that night, locked in the professor’s arms, that she’d been as much a part of letting go, of drifting, as Eric had. Forever passive, comfortable with her resentments, her need to be present but remain in the shadows. In India she knew she must find her way out.
Naomi told Eric he had to cut back on his activities, stay at home, get to know her again, because she was someone worth knowing. She surprised him, but he went along with her, and she suspected he knew that she knew about the tall woman. With Carla as their neighbour, he should have guessed as much, should have been more discreet. They went out together on dates, he deflected phone calls. They were in the process of rebuilding and he was putting his whole heart into it. Naomi knew he’d ended it, wondered if it might have ended before she came back from India, but she never asked.
Before her stood the last person in line, the tall woman with the shoulder-length hair. She hesitated before extending her hand out, but Naomi would not take it. Naomi held her gaze on the woman’s which seemed full of shame and sadness, and when she went to speak Naomi said, “No.” She reached out with both hands and drew the woman towards her, held her. She would not tell the children, not ever.