In a doctor’s office, I held a plastic black spoon up to my right eye and said aloud the letters that I saw. I was in second grade, and squinted whenever I read books. I moved the spoon to my left eye and read the letters again. They didn’t spell anything. The doctor told my parents I was near-sighted.
My eyes made refractive errors, bending the light as it came in, blurring everything. The first day I wore my glasses to school, Joey Kincaid called me Four-eyes. I took them off and hid under the slide while the other kids formed a line to Language Arts. It was embarrassing not to be able to see what the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. Still, I squinted.
Thirty years later, without my glasses, everything is shapeless. My eyes adjust to the early morning dark as I look out the window, attempting to make out what hulking shapes are nearby. Old, silent snow covers my street in Northeast Portland. Tiny white lights wink from my neighbor’s porch against the gray sky. The wind swirls snow into spirals, the river currents of air finally visible. Is that a rock or a tree?
I am crepuscular, like an elephant or a bat that completes most of their activities in the evening or at dawn. I come alive when the light is low, when my rods are awake and my cones are least useful.
My father collected elephants. I remember his bookshelf where he displayed them in all the houses where we lived during the first eleven years of my life. The wooden one from Libya where my grandfather was stationed when my dad was a teenager. The plastic purple one I bought him with my allowance money. The small smooth jade elephant from Japan that I would turn over and over in my pale girl hands to see them from all angles. The twin black elephants with their uplifted trunks twisted. I came home from school one day in March and the bookcase was still there, but his elephants were nowhere to be seen. It was the first sign that he had moved out for good.
Dusk and dawn come gradually, but not all darkness is so kind. It has been thirty-nine months since my husband’s brother killed himself. The pain is shrill, like an injured area of the body you just can’t stop using even though it hurts every time. If you gave me a list of ten people and asked me who was the most likely to kill themselves, I would have put Charlie at the bottom of every list. We didn’t know he was depressed. We couldn’t see it.
His note said he was sorry and told his parents to sell his Jet Ski and pool table for money to pay for his burial expenses.
I held way too much against him. He told his brother not to marry me.
I met my partner long before I grew close to him. Sometime in the mid-90s, my college boyfriend and I sat in our neighborhood coffee shop near student housing at the University of Kentucky, ordering mocha lattes. Our server towered over our table to take our order and his voice woke me up. His amber eyes smiled a lot. He had a long wavy braid that flowed down his back. My boyfriend said hello to him and they talked about their home town, the high school they graduated from in different years. After he brought our coffees and wandered away to another table, I asked, “What’s his name?”
“I can’t remember,” my boyfriend said. “Does it matter?”
Elephants can identify a hundred or more faces of their family groups. They are well known for recognizing humans or other elephants that they have not seen for decades and showing excitement at the reunion.
Five years later, he was twenty minutes late for our date, but brought a bouquet of gorgeous stargazer lilies. I tried to hide my crankiness when I pulled down the dusty vase from the top of the closet. He suggested we watch the Albuquerque sunset, so we wound our way up the mountain road. We perched on a rock to hear the coyotes sing, watch the watermelon glow of fading light. He lifted himself off the rock and sunk to the ground, then came up on one knee with a small black box in his hand. “What’s happening?” I asked.
He said it was okay that I didn’t want to be called wife or erase my last name. He said that the word husband bothered him, too. We discussed taking each other’s names but it never really stuck. It was still illegal for our gay friends to get married. We didn’t need those words to prove what we felt.
Nothing bad could happen in marriage, I believed, if I asked enough questions in the beginning, if I made him promise right from the start he would never, never leave unexpectedly. If I moved far away from my father and didn’t even talk to him much, if I picked a gentle guy who loved to sing and read and cook, who had communication skills and awareness of his feelings, the complete opposite of my own father. If we swore to communicate with each other about anything at all that made us not want to be married anymore. If we emphasized that what truly mattered above all was honesty. If I told him over and over that it was okay for him to do anything—fall in love with someone else, grow bored, become obsessed with Greenland and urgently need to move there. Any of this could work, as long as I was the first to know. We’d have a binding agreement. Tell me everything. Don’t surprise me.
When a member of their tribe dies, the elephants fall silent. They carefully touch the body with their trunks, particularly the jaw and tusks. Then, they cover their family member with dirt and leaves and spend several days with his body before they move on. The elephant herds visit the places where their dead were buried in past years and take some time there.
My mother-in-law did not cry at her son’s funeral service. Everything took place at the funeral home in Kentucky where she worked. The red brick house faced east, with large and airy windows. The rooms poured into each other, so many flowered sofas and wooden chairs with white upholstered seats. She met people at the door with her coiffed hair and rosy pink cardigan and ushered them to the casket. She touched the pearls around her neck when she asked about their living children, how life was treating them. People allowed her to care for them, show them around. They leaned towards her, wanting to give comfort, to help. She was a professional at this, after all, experienced, and she had it all under control.
It was a tearless funeral; If you wanted to weep, you did it outside. There was a growing huddle of mourners in the parking lot, passing around a bottle of bourbon. That is where my partner and I gravitated. Brown fire fluid soothed our burning eyes. We wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder, drink the fermented sap, and sway together. We wanted to touch the bones of our family member, lying lifeless in a box.
A few months into our relationship, my partner and I noticed that he was spending the night with me every night. “Maybe you should sleep in your own bed tomorrow night,” I said. “I don’t want to sleep one night away from you,” he told me.
After we moved to Oregon and bought our first house, his brother flew all the way out to Portland to help move an electrical line on the outside of the house. I wanted to know how electricity functioned. He gave me a crash course as he worked.
“Electricity happens when electrons flow around a circuit,” he said. “Some force, like a battery, gets the electrons to move, then that voltage starts them circulating in a line across some conductive wire like migrating birds.” He grabbed the stepladder with both hands to move it. I moved forward to help, but he shook his head. “The current can reverse direction multiple times in a second. You can have direct current heat a filament in a light bulb to make it glow and the alternating current cross the filament back and forth to keep the illumination going. All that, just so you can stay up late and see in the dark.”
“What happens if the circuit gets blocked?”
“Nothing. The lights go out.”
I laughed with Charlie, teased him that he should move out to Portland and start his own business. He said, “I’m never gonna leave Kentucky.”
The sofa we saved up to purchase was huge, a coral-colored sectional in an L-shape. We could both lay down on it at once, with our heads meeting at the center of the V. Or, I would sit and he would lie long-ways with his head in my lap and my trained fingers would massage his scalp, release all the tight tendons where the base of his skull met his neck. I cradled his head in my hands, taking over the work that his neck did, holding him up.
Even though my partner and I were both born in Kentucky, neither of us had an accent in our everyday speech. His mom was from California. Mine was a speech therapist. But on some nights, if he asked me to get him a beer from the fridge, he would purposefully extend the syllables and thicken the words, maybe even call me little darlin’. I would respond with a painfully slow dripping “weyell, shure I will, bay-bee.” I loved living in Oregon but I missed people saying “all y’all” when they addressed the whole room.
Baby elephants are born blind. Many suck on their trunks for reassurance, similar to the way baby humans rely on their thumbs for comfort. Their sight develops gradually, by necessity, as they become more independent.
Because of my severe astigmatism, without my contact lenses, I am legally blind. I eat carrots and leafy greens to pump myself full of Vitamin A. I do eye exercises when I remember.
If there were an apocalypse and my glasses were to break, I would never survive in the emerging dystopian society. “That’s silly. You would be fine,” my partner said, with his 20-20 vision.
I could also never make it as an electrician, operating in crawlspaces with bright lights on miniscule wires, trying to find where the circuit broke.
If you knew the worst thing that ever happened to you was going to happen to you, what would you do? The event happens, cascades of events follow. The light refracts and changes.
My therapist said I have to let go of the shame of it, the humiliation, the guilt, of not knowing. My best friend asked me if I had any idea that my partner was unhappy. I had to say nope, not a glimmer. My old friend from California said that when she last saw him at my birthday party, he didn’t talk to her much, acted shifty. Her deep intuition told her something was wrong with him. After she mentioned it in two separate phone conversations with me, I told her to stop.
My partner always fell asleep so easily, forehead relaxed, snoring in gentle snorts. Sleep was never a friend of mine. I flipped side to side, spinning like a dolphin. I stayed awake long after his bedtime, writing and smoking cigarettes on our porch and climbed in bed with freezing hands and feet. He was like a heater in winter. He teased me because in my sleep, I chased him across the bed like a heat-seeking missile. Sometimes he would get up at night to pee and would have to climb back into bed on my side because I had snuggled him to the edge of the bed and there was nowhere left for him to go.
Female elephants help each other forage and tend the calves. If one elephant is wounded by a spear or an arrow, another will pull it out. They put food and water in the mouths of family members who have damaged trunks, or who are dying.
To someone else, I would say it’s brave to ask for help. But when it’s me, I just wait and drink bourbon with the lights out and tell myself, no, it’s not bad enough yet. I can’t call someone unless it is really bad. I can’t be the girl who cries out and everyone rushes in and then no one will come when I need more help later. I have to save up my requests for a real emergency.
Wide-eyed at 2 a.m., I thought on repeat: What if Charlie had just asked one of us? What if he just called and said: Life doesn’t make sense. It’s so dark and cold where I am. I can’t make it through one more winter. Come get me. Come put food in my mouth. Come pull the spear out.
My partner said he was doing fine after his brother died, but he moved through the days with dead eyes. When a person pretends to live, you can do so little about it. When I asked him what he needed to feel more loved, he said he was fine. I squinted at him, tried to see, to understand. What could I reply to that? No sir, sorry, this ain’t a life. When I offered suggestions of ways I could support him, he parked himself in the center of our coral-colored sofa and played video games.
When a family member kills themselves, it seems ethereal. But there is a texture, of bricks, burlap, gravel. It draws blood if you fall on it. It can scrape your knees. It can punch you.
My partner couldn’t see what was punching him after his brother killed himself so he began to change everything in his life. First, he got a new job.
One night, I came home and he had not made dinner when he said he would. I asked him if next time, he would let me know so I could pick up some Pad Thai on my way back from work. He said he was done with me, walked out, and never returned. Three months later, he sent me a thank you note in the mail that said: Thanks for our seventeen years together. I want a divorce. I didn’t have my glasses on when he fled, so the last time I saw him, he was a gray blur moving away from me.
Elephants stamp their feet and make sounds of the lowest bass, human ears can’t even distinguish it. They can talk to each other over kilometers, both inside their own tribes and with other herds.
I don’t know how to mourn like an elephant. I stamp my feet in the snow but no one hears me.
Absence is always the most grisly in the morning; the closest time to the truth happens without the lights on. You can’t help but see the hole that is left. The distance between my partner and me, the gone of him, the temperature drop in my whole life. I didn’t know two men would die when Charlie shot himself.
You know the noise I mean when I say that grief lives in a sound. Grief goads you to make that high clear croaking moan, the emaciated sister of a scream. This is the truth of losing someone. This is the most dangerous sound because once you begin, there is no guarantee that you will ever make any other sound again.
But the alternative is to pinch your lips shut and move through the day with dead eyes.
It hurts. You put up your hands to fend it off. In the forensic television shows, they’re called “defensive wounds,” made when your instinct is to cover, to cross your arms in front of your face and curl in. But your assailant keeps striking. Now, you cannot live this way, and even with your arms up, grief will punch you randomly.
You see your ex walking down the street in a blue sweater and checkered shirt that he did not own when you were together. He has gained weight and his beard is long and scruffy. He does not see you. He is a ghost of himself. Punch.
When you see people at the grocery store, and they ask how your partner is, you have to tell them the story. Every time you tell someone new, they always clutch their chest or their throat. Punch.
Your stomach stone grows harder when your friend tells you he will be at her birthday party; she doesn’t want to take sides so she invited you both. Now, you can’t go. Did you know stone can get even colder? You stop eating because it’s so crowded inside your belly. Punch.
He shows up in the dreams you dread the most, the ones where he stayed home. He was never gone. Your fingertips kiss his chest, the warm of him, the musk of his red t-shirt after the gym. You see it and believe it. He came back for you. Punch.
You can’t finish the entire order of Pad Thai yourself. Now you will eat the leftovers for two days. Punch.
You accidentally check the “Married” box on the new doctor’s office forms. Punch.
You try to ask for help or at least allow the people who want to help you to come in, especially your tribe who would stand in a circle around you while you sleep, or at least pull out the spear, but you can’t make out if they are rocks or trees. Punch.
I want to do grief right. I still recognize the faces in the photos of the family I no longer have. I still know where everything is buried.
Would I recognize his bones if I touched them? How long before I forget? I try to see in both directions—into a past that has faded like daylight, into a future that is still blurry.
Grief becomes a family heirloom, bygone figurines collected in my memory. It promises to show me exactly where I went blind, if I just run my fingers over everything that happened. It’s all about high contrast, being able to tell the difference between windows and walls.
The morning snow turns to slush. I put on my glasses, but nothing seems clearer. I am hindsighted.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.