We take a cab to the outskirts of Bucharest to rent a car for the day. It is early spring, and my wife, Katie, will die in a few months, but this morning, I wonder how we might beat the weekend traffic. The plan is to claim the car, pick up our friend, and then drive two hours to Busteni. The rental office is seven stories up a Communist bloc apartment complex. It retains a certain aura of unquestioning silence: marble pillars, travertine facades. We stand in the hallway, ringing buzzers and looking through the dark glass. Katie calls the company on her cell phone but there is only a recorded message that we cannot translate. We retreat to the café across the street, lean our packs against the wall, and order eggs and coffee.
The office manager arrives a little before noon, hungover, eager to pick a fight. We need a car that morning. He will not have a car until late in the afternoon. We have no need for a car if it means we cannot leave town that day. He will charge the credit card either way. We will not pay him. Either take the car or forfeit the deposit and fee. We sign the papers, load our things into the trunk, and head back to our friend’s place.
At a supermarket, we buy beef ribs, spices, potatoes, imported chocolate bars with chilies and candied fruit, bottles of wine. We dig a barbeque pit in the yard, then decide it will be better to slow down a bit and enjoy the afternoon. We are in no hurry. We have all day now to do nothing together. Our friend finds some painkillers left over from her back surgery. She says they might take the edge off. We open the wine and watch three or four DVDs of a television show we like. We cook our dinner and eat it on her back porch, then walk to a nearby park to watch the sunset. We are tired again, and a little cold, ashamed for having wasted the day like this. Our friend asks to keep the car to run errands.
Calle Victoria is a straight shot between the two plazas nearest our apartments. We walk against traffic where it narrows into a single lane, past the park and art museum. We meander the neighborhoods. The streets and sidewalks are empty. We are still a little high. Katie holds my hand and swing her arms. We push the pace. We want to get home, to finish the day. A few minutes from the apartment, Katie suggests we stock up on milk and eggs for the morning. Sundays, nothing will open until late afternoon. At a fruit stand we buy fresh green apples, tart and a little under-ripe for the season.
Say, for argument’s sake, we hire the car that morning and drive to Busteni, or take the train instead. Say the rental agent is not sick. We are his only business, valued customers in fact, for whom he has a late 90s Peugeot gassed up and ready to go. We make good time out of Bucharest, past the abandoned industrial parks and new farms, and arrive quickly to Busteni. We ride the cable car up the mountain, take photographs under the white cross at the top, poke around a bit. We find an easy day hike across the ridge and back, eat lunch, drink our celebratory beers on the porch outside the basement of the hostel.
We say that it was good to get out of the city and away from our routines. We should do this more often. On the ride down the mountain, we tell our friend about our weekend in Cali Manesti, for Katie’s birthday, how we hiked near the sulfur springs and got lost in the farm where I surrendered my shoe to a manure pile. Coming down the mountain, the cable car clicks and swings, and stops for a while over the deep valley to wait out the high wind, but it starts again. We do not travel to Busteni three months later. Katie does not die on the ridge of that mountain on a Saturday in late June. The ridge is not made sacred by her violent death. A bear crosses the ridge that day and attacks no one. Instead, that afternoon in March, we cross Busteni off of our list. There are other parts of Romania to visit that summer, for my birthday, before we leave the country for good.
I leave Indiana on a Monday in August. I have lived there, with Katie’s brother and his family, for a little more than a year. I pack my car the night before with everything I own, mostly books, a few pieces of small furniture I fit crossways in the backseat. I drive the kids to their bus stop and wait with my sister-in-law to give hugs. They step up and head off to their new school year. Everyone is a year older. I haven’t planned how to say goodbye to my sister-in-law, or what it means to leave, except in the broadest terms. I am excited to be on my way. I have known for months that I will be leaving. We smile, say goodbye, and say goodbye again. I drive slowly down the block until, through the rearview mirror, my sister-in-law turns around to walk back into the neighborhood. I find the highway and play the mix of valedictory songs I have mapped out in advance. But the music feels too self-congratulatory. I start to feel guilty. I turn on the news until the signal fades past Lafayette, and when I am south of Merrillville I call my sister-in-law and tell her I will be in Chicago in a few hours.
Earlier that week, I drive to the storage locker and open the last boxes from Romania. I have promised Katie’s family they can look through the boxes and take what they like, but before they do, I want to make sure I knew what I am offering, and that I will not miss the things they take. I separate out some of her clothes into one box, papers from her work into another. I find a Sudoku book where Katie has solved most of the puzzles. She has the habit of finishing one, then dating it, writing all over the page in an exuberant, loping script, “YES! TWO DAYS!” or “FINISHED!!!” Taken together, they make an informal calendar of our last year together, a record of one part of her happiness. I like seeing her handwriting again. I remember how she would write messages in the margins of the puzzles, passing them over my way she was off to run errands, or if one of us was talking to our family on Skype. I would find annotated Sudoku pages torn out of the book, all over the apartment. We even used them for scrap paper.
I drive north past Chicago. I stop at the grocery store a mile from the nature preserve and buy flowers. I park in the lot and make my way toward the place where we spread Katie’s ashes. It is warm, even for the season, and there is not much shade. The flowers are coming out. All of the grass cut back from the path in winter has grown in thick, a little weedy. I can just make out the place where the ashes fell in a great clump, before we spread them by hand. I stand there a while, feeling good. We were right not to bury Katie in a cemetery. She can go wherever she wants to, I think, but that is too corny. Let the wind take your troubles away, from a song we both liked, is better.
A police officer stops Katie’s mother, Katie’s brother, and me in the parking lot of the subdivision across the street, the night after her funeral. You should not be doing this. It is late, the preserve is technically closed. The officer writes down our names, addresses, driver’s license numbers. He gives us a warning about trespassing so close to a construction site. After he leaves, we sneak around to the back entrance. Fireflies are out, and crickets. After the summer rain, everything glows. The memorial site is a little more than a mile from that entrance, just past the clearing. We find it coming both ways on the path. We stand together, and then spread out a little. We hug and put our arms across each other’s shoulders, waiting to be done with our individual silences. The pile of ashes is hard, like wet cement beginning to set. All summer and fall, I keep waiting for nature to get to work and dissolve it into the soil. In wintertime, it disappears under the snow and ice, but come spring, I reach in and break it into smaller crumbles, and throw handfuls of hard clay deep into the field.
My brother-in-law takes me to the mountain bike trails just west of the city, a series of ramps and narrow, rocky paths with dusty turnouts and gravel pits. In his enormous red pick-up, we talk about the mountain biking trails in North Miami, where Katie and I went to graduate school: stretches of mangrove next to Biscayne Bay, steep hills and fences, the long slopes down to where the “diamond” trails began. We make our own loops across and back to the parking lot. I plug in my headphone and play Yo La Tengo’s “Did I Tell You?” over and over on my headphones:
I tried not to wonder
Or tell you that I’m not willing to wait
‘Cause deep in my heart I’m willing
My heart’s still willing
My brain’s impatient
My heart’s still willing to wait.
I meet my friend Ben in Chicago, for the first anniversary of Katie’s death. We have plans to fly to Bucharest, take the train to Busteni, and climb the mountain where she had died, but I panic, and at the last minute I cancel our tickets. Instead, we walk the lakefront to Andersonville, past Katie’s and my old apartment, and make our way to Moody’s, where we play all of the Cat Stevens we can buy on the jukebox. Katie loved Cat Stevens, the Harold and Maude soundtrack especially. Leaving the bar, we try to make a short-cut east from Clark St., back towards the Lake, but we end up wandering into one alley, then into another, until we get turned around. Coming back out to Clark St. we pass a party on one of the balconies, four or so stories up. A rock anthem ends, then the low hum of party chatter. As we passed under the side stairwell, clear as can be, the opening chords of “Moonshadow.”
That first summer in Indiana, I lose Katie’s wedding band. I wear it on the band of my watch until one day it falls off in the gymnasium where I play basketball with her brother, or disappears under the seat of his truck, or perhaps is lost in the burrito shop, after basketball, where I am sweating so much I take the watch off to protect the leather band. The watch is crystal-action, wind-up, Russian-made with Cyrillic letters across the dial. Katie buys it in Romania for me and gives it to me for Christmas. There is a small indentation where the ring leaves an impression on the finish, a crack in the leather. That night, I stumble between rooms in the house, searching everywhere for it. I have taken a sleeping pill and now I struggle to stay awake long enough to complete my search. I know I will not find it, that I am even probably looking in the wrong place, but I have to make a full effort. I need to believe that I have done everything I can to save the ring before I quit looking for it.
The ring that I lose is not Katie’s engagement ring; I keep that one in a box on a shelf. It is not even the ring Katie wore on our wedding day. The ring I never find is white gold, slender as a ring-tab. She purchased it in a Miami jewelry store to replace the original bands of thick titanium we had found online, whose weight she hated on her finger; how it clinked against everything she touched. I tie the titanium ring to a rope twisted with a metal chain and wear it around my neck for the next year.
Ion kills the engine and runs his headlights long enough for us to find the trailhead. The trees spread out down the hill in both directions. We walk shoulder to shoulder until there is no space between them, and when we stagger out seven or eight feet, Katie takes the lead and our friend walks behind me. I can hear the crunch of snow underfoot as I shine my flashlight on the back of Katie’s head, then down at the path in front of me, then back behind me for our friend to see the way. I follow Katie. She keeps walking.
It is April, 2007. Two months before Katie’s death, six weeks after we do not drive to Busteni. Ion’s bed-and-breakfast offers valet service from the train station, whatever the hour. His blue diesel pickup sits four across, with our bags in the back next to an enormous dog. The dog doesn’t move, not even when the road narrows to a single lane between buildings and we stop to wait for oncoming traffic. The ride that night is uneventful. It takes less than an hour. We park near a turnout from the highway one, maybe two kilometers’ hike from the cabin. Just follow the trail, Ion says. He will bring around the bags.
The next day, from his porch, we see houses up and down the ridge but that night we seem only to walk deeper into a forest. Shouldn’t we be there by now, I think. Isn’t that a fork in the path ahead, and beyond that, another fork? I can smell wood smoke and charcoal, and periodically the snow seems to get deeper and shallower. We make as little noise as possible. Much later, when it is neither dark nor late, we agree a second possibility had crossed each of our minds, that we had been terrified to acknowledge it. We might never arrive to the cabin. There might be no cabin, no Transylvania, no Ion; only some elaborate Romanian hustle to fleece tourists and ex-pats, then abandon them in the winter mud and ice.
What curiosity plunges us so headlong toward adventure that we trust Ion’s unmarked trail?
And then we are there, standing before a magnificent wooden palace filled with light, against which our flashlights make no shadow or intrusion. Ion and his dog stand on the porch, waiting for us. If Ion has passed us in the forest he makes no mention of it. He invites us inside to shake out our shoes, and hang our jackets, hats, and gloves near the fire.
Ion’s wife has set out plates of cheese and cubed lard, which he now pares with his pocketknife and spread on crackers. He ticks through a list of hospitality-laden questions, one after the next, practicing his English.
How did we like working in Romania?
Did we want to walk the next morning to the frozen pond at the edge of his property?
Who would like a nightcap of homemade brandy before he showed us to our rooms?
Ion explains that he owns all of the land from the road, past the cabin, to the mountain. He has purchased it from the government after the fall of Communism, and now no one patrols the area. He has made a number of renovations. He is building new lots. He will make an enormous profit, and after the sale, he will move back to his village and never work again. His daughter will study medicine or law in the United States. His neighbor’s daughter is a junior at the Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
The brandy is bitter and burns in our stomachs. After a few more, we are all pretty drunk. There is a back staircase to a room under the cabin where Ion kept his dogs, and do we want to see them? We might hear whining in the night and he doesn’t want us to worry. He is conditioning the new litter for the following winter. If their coats grow thick now, more fur will grow back with the first freeze.
The door rattles on its hinges, even before he turns the deadbolt. He tells us to stand back. Then it starts: the low baying, or maybe it is howling, then the staccato yips of puppies intermixed with irregular barks. Some of the dogs are growing faster than the others, Ion explains, now that they are weaned. He keeps the mother inside the house, because otherwise she might feed only her favorites.
We wouldn’t think to look at them now, Ion says, but these dogs will triple in size before spring. Every day, they will eat their weight in raw meat. Then he will really begin to train them. He will isolate them from human contact to teach loyalty. Fully grown, this will be the only species of dog in Europe that can kill a bear: snap its neck and bring it right down to the ground.
He will sell the dogs to hunters and neighbors, and make still another fortune. Tonight, though, we should stroke their soft bellies. We should reach between the slats and feel the heavy fur. They will not imprint on us; they will grow docile only if they learn to expect us ever night. If this happens, Ion explains, then they will be useless. He might as well shoot them. These could be vicious dogs, Ion reminds us, but they make lousy pets. Tonight, though, their howling makes the cabin safe. Whatever walks toward the cabin that night, coming or going to the mountain, will let us be because of it.
My last night in Indiana, after everyone has gone to sleep, I roll a notebook, a blanket and some beers into a backpack. I drive to the storage locker, enter the code, turn the deadbolt, and open the box. The cover is soft, black faux-leather. The pages are crisp, but have a give toward the middle. They will soon crease. I have a little more than an hour before the gate will lock for the night. I sit in the hallway, under a row of fluorescent lights, and read Katie’s journal. Nothing belongs to Katie, not any longer. Or, it is all mine: her detritus, her daily life, even her secrets. I don’t have to share them with anyone.
To whom can I give these last objects from our life, so that they might honor her absence?
I fly out to Boston that spring to attend the wedding of a friend from college. The whole weekend, I feel alternately humored and suffocated. Perhaps I am selfish, and do not want anyone else to fall in love. Or, I am intimidated and unsure of myself. Or, I want to warn everyone about how this marriage might end, however improbable. It is obvious to me that I have made a foolish decision to attend. I am not even in the wedding party or a part of the service.
My friend is Russian, and at the rehearsal dinner we drink too much vodka. I half-heartedly hit on a married bridesmaid, who details at great length the failures of her own marriage. Really, I am desperate to confide the secret of Katie’s death, to practice its power, but my friend has warned everyone in advance about my situation. He has asked them to treat me gingerly, with a sense of deference. It is a sensitivity and kindness on his part, but it magnifies both my need and shame. I am marked as someone special. I am sympathized with. I have no secret.
A few blocks from the restaurant I throw up in the bushes in front of the Prudential building. I pass out on the T and wake up at the end of the line, last train, Braintree. I spent $75 to take a cab back to the hotel. The next afternoon, before the wedding, I buy a new pair of very expensive shoes. I feel uncertain and unstable. I try to make small talk but I can only think of one thing to talk about, the inevitable subject I am terrified to broach. I sit for the beginning of the reception, the first dance, the toasts, and when the music picks up, I leave early.
We are standing in front of the People’s Palace of Bucharest, considering Katie’s job offer to live in Romania for the rest of the summer and the following year. It is late August and hot. This part of the city is quiet and empty. Katie asks me, again, if it is really what I want to do. Am I ready to leave Miami, to move again? Can we really make a life in Romania?
Each time she asks, we are exhausted and afraid. We feel a little older. We have talked out every detail and now we look at each other. Katie is holding my hands and standing very close. Her eyes are bright and she will not look down. I hate seeing her like this, as I know she hates, more than anything, feeling vulnerable.
Do we really want to do this? she asks again, and I know she means, I know how much you love me, and I love you, and still, this might not work out. This might be a terrible, terrible mistake we are making. And once we make it, we will not be able to walk it back, not really, not without terrible consequences.
I cannot tell all of this story.
I can no longer distinguish conscience from will.
Katie does not speak to me from the grave. Her voice does not carry across the grasses of the nature preserve and whisper stories about our life together, or challenge any part of what she says now. What I make her to say. Even what is preserved in letters and journals and photographs; is perfected in conversations with friends and family members; in an order I continue to assemble, that refuses any certain shape, which I will one day completely imagine; all of it, diminishes daily.
For weeks before Katie’s death date, and then again before her birthday, I am edgy and irritable. I stop doing things. I spend time alone, and I think only about her death, and I hope to grieve, however contrived, because if I grieve again I will feel better and surrender, for a while, the burden. I will the emotion to complete the ritual.
I am not dead. I do not die symbolic deaths. I will not imagine some figurative transformation of death and say it has become truth and beauty. Death has no hypothetical aspect, however I have witnessed it. It is not mastered through ritual and practice.
But there is this. Under the lights of the neon billboards making shadows across the empty palace, I pause a moment. I sit down on the bench and look up at Katie. I cannot change my answer but I know the sound of my voice there, and I speak with certainty; again and again, I begin the sequence. I must. It is my obligation. We will leave together. Yes.