It would mean less to say that having dropped her off at the Greyhound station only an hour before, returned home, changed into my jogging gear and started around the pond on my regular morning run, that I then met her coming the other way, appearing around a bend ahead, walking toward me as if nothing could be more normal, wearing different clothes, but taking her regular morning hike, if she had been someone I hardly knew--someone, for example, that I had met the previous evening at a party and who had told me she was going to Montreal on the bus the next morning and I'd said, ah, that's nice, going on a visit, and she'd said, no, going up for St. Jean-Baptiste Day, it's a big holiday there you know, June 24, quite a celebration, and I'd said, brilliant, but why not come home with me tonight, and celebrate first, just to get the hang of it, and we can chase away the shadows and so on, and in the morning I'll drive you to the bus, and she'd smiled, showing me that slightly oversized, darkening front tooth that had first attracted me to her and said okie-dokie the way she did and we'd done that. That would have been one thing. But that was not the case. She was my wife.
Or at least I thought so then. At least I had thought so up until then. What I mean is, when I saw her coming toward me, recognizing me even before I recognized her, although I could barely (naturally) feature that it was really her, I did ask myself the question in a hypothetical way, as in, "the woman known as such and such: would it be accurate to say that she is my wife?" and answered it in the affirmative. That is, at the moment, that much was clear. Later--and not that much later--I was less sure, but at that second, although I wondered for an instant if I'd gone mad, I decided, no, I had not, that it was her and that I, as usual, was me and that we were indeed married--in fact, had been for six years--in fact had only three days ago celebrated our anniversary by eating out in the neighborhood at what had turned out to be a very bad Italian restaurant on Centre Street . Of this, as I say, at the moment, there seemed no doubt.
But, as I say, some quickly developed as she came toward me. I became less certain, less convinced. So much so, and so quickly, in fact, that by the time we came up to one another I was not quite myself. Or at least not quite as much as I usually hoped I was. In fact, I had never felt less myself than right then, and I remain, even now, in a very parlous and partial condition.
But let me return to the moment. Or more precisely, to the time between the moment when I first saw her and the moment when I was sure it was her, and to the moment when we stopped in front of one another--that was of course much more than a moment. That was quite a long time. Here are some of the things I thought. Mostly they came after I was sure it was her. Until then I was completely occupied with verification, so to speak. Once that was complete, the first thing I thought--although thinking is not the right word because very little of that was involved in producing what was more a jolt, a burst of some strange adrenalin-like substance flooding the brain (looking back on it now the closest I can come to a likeness is what might happen in your brain on a fast-moving raft in the middle of a river if you suddenly, in the middle of all the other action, realized that in about ten seconds you were going to be swept over a towering waterfall and killed. I know that sounds overly-dramatic, perhaps so much so as to be banal, but with the tree branches overhead, and the pond, I did feel like I was in quite a similar position, figuratively speaking)-so maybe the first thing I experienced rather than thought, was that for her too it seemed obvious (from the way she reacted when she saw me), that it was me. I say this was the first thing I thought, or experienced after deciding, once and for all, that it was her, but I believe now that it was this very experience, or thought, or call it what you will, that concluded my verification, that brought that particular part of the proceedings to a close so to speak, with a whimper.
It was when I saw her smile, and then give me her little funny soldier's wave, the side-to-side pendulum wave, as I called it, as she came toward me, that a feeling of darkness snapped down over me like the lid of a coffin. I then had the following quick and desperate thoughts. First, I rapidly reviewed the immediate past. We had discussed the necessity of the trip to Montreal some time ago, the legal necessity of crossing the border, of leaving the country for two weeks to renew her visa, had called Jan and Mira in Montreal and arranged her stay, and called the Greyhound station. She had gone down Tuesday and purchased her ticket, and that morning I had gotten up, we'd put her bags in the trunk of the car and I had driven her to the station. This was beyond dispute.
In the time it took me to think these thoughts the distance between us was cut in half. She was larger now, and I became, I confess, seriously frightened. At first it seemed there might be any number of possible explanations for her presence here, but as I thought them over during the time it took to halve that distance again--a time in which my speed not only went from jog to trot but slackened to plod--I realized that none of them--she was ill, for example, or she had changed her plans, or had forgotten something at home--made any sense. It was, for example, quite conceivable (the most obvious explanation) that there had been some mechanical difficulty with the bus, that passengers had been disembarked, if one uses that word for getting passengers off a bus, tickets changed or refunded, other departures arranged, other gates written on the tickets by the bus driver as he stood at the gate in his traditional gray uniform, without his hat of course, which was probably in the bus, but holding the punch that he would normally have used to punch the tickets, having removed it from the little leather holster on his belt, and apologizing for the fact that there was no other bus for Montreal leaving till the afternoon, let's say. Hence: she had decided to come home. To go later. To wait and go the next day. She had retrieved her bags and taken a taxi home, arriving only minutes after I left the house for my run.
But this was impossible. First of all, it is a known fact that if a Greyhound bus has a mechanical failure the company will have another bus there within minutes. The Greyhound Bus Company did not become famous by allowing breakdowns to inconvenience its passengers. Second--and this consideration on its own was conclusive--she had to be in Montreal that night, had to cross the border before midnight to maintain her visa status. Failing to do so meant disaster for her Green Card application. No change of plans was possible. Her visa here would become invalid. Our immigration lawyer would drop us. Hence: if this necessity had suddenly been converted to an impossibility, or if she were ill, or even if she had just, say, forgotten her passport, she would hardly be out taking a stroll. She would be home in bed, pulling out her hair. That's how serious it was. These thoughts took place in the time of a step and a half.
The most distressing consideration, however, was the following. Even if she had arrived home in a taxi the very moment I turned the corner on my way to the pond she would not have had time to get her bags inside (even with the help of a muscular cabby), change her clothes and make it three quarters of the way around the pond, at a walking pace, to where she had appeared. This last point was definitive. No matter why she had not taken the bus, there was no accounting for her right now being where she was, and dressed as she was. It would have taken her ten minutes just to find her runners. Of this, as we closed, as I took my last three, two, one step toward her, coming at last, finally, sweating, breathing hard, to a wide-eyed stand in front of her, I was suddenly quite certain.
That's why I was frightened. In an instant, my universe, as they say, or rather, let's call it my pathetic little world--one I had nonetheless spent a great deal of time building and cleaning and endowing with unalterable laws--turned to sand.
"Chub!"--so I am called by my wife, unfairly, because I am not fat. She seemed slightly distressed too, I thought, although still smiling, a tad puzzled perhaps by my rooted stance. We stood then, me panting, looking at her, I'm sure, as if she were a ghost. She must have felt that. I must have looked odd, I admit.
Then, to complete my confusion, she reached out and took my arms and tried gently to move me past her, to put me on my way. "Go on, go on!" she encouraged me, laughing, and even slapped me on the back, like a coach, and she was about to carry on herself, be on her way.
"Hey!" I said. And while I have often, in my life, uttered that stupid monosyllable, as we all have, never did I mean it, whatever it means, with more intensity than I did at that moment.
She was already moving off. Back in stride. As if our meeting one another like this were a regular thing, an everyday occurrence, and my stopping merely another indication of my lovable quirkiness.
"Wait a minute!" I yelled. The urgency in my voice must have meant something to her. She stopped sharp and turned around. Her face, however (those almond-shaped eyes and cupid lips framed by the double parenthesis of black hair), remained a mystery, revealing nothing. It was still fresh, still smiling, as if yes indeed we did have time for just a little more of the joke. But did I detect just a glimmer of alarm there? "What happened at the bus?" I said.
Now it may so happen, that when you say something to someone, to a person, say, you've met who is several feet away from you, standing in a public place, a park for example, with other people around, that while they are thinking over what you've said, which of course, in normal circumstances takes just a moment since what you've said is most likely only a burst of social noise like, "These bikes have gotta go!" or "How are the new runners?" they take a step. Usually it's toward you. Although not always. It may be a step back, away from you, which of course is always depressing, indicating that they have no time for you, that they hate you, that they are sick of your face, regret having run into you, consider you an oaf, will never ever invite you to their house and if they ever see you again jogging will if possible take another route to avoid you, to avoid this very thing, this having to encounter you, speak to you, acknowledge your existence. In any case, a step will be taken, it will occur, and you will interpret it. In this case the news was good. The right step was taken. The woman whom I very much wanted to be my wife became very still suddenly, then took a tentative step toward me. I saw that I now had her complete attention. She seemed to consider a reply. "What?" she said.
My breathing was now coming back to normal, almost normal, in fact slow, too slow, close to nothing on the mirror in fact, close to bloody-well stopped if truth be told. "The bus," I almost whispered. "What happened?"
She took two baby steps forward and stopped and looked into my face, moving her dark mobile eyes from one of mine (blue) to the other, as she always did when she was either trying to be sexy, or determine if I was lying. She looked at me now with what I can see in retrospect was, after all, under the circumstances, an understandable and appropriate curiosity. At the moment, however, the effect this look had on me, pressed from behind as it was by the cumulative effect of the previous moments, was weighty and alarming. It had the weight of water, the cumulative weight of a nasty floodtide pressing up against my dam, although I must admit I did not have the image then, of gray seething water, a version of the Floss heaving along with its swirling sodden branches. In fact I had no image at all, of anything. In fact, like a dummy, I looked down at myself to see if I was really there, looked down like an idiot might, to see if his fly was open. I looked down at the front of my T-shirt, hoping, I believe, at that moment, that I would not recognize it, that in fact I would indeed prove to be someone else. As if that would help. Which of course it would have. Very much so. I already felt perilously hot, on the point of fainting, and I believe that if I had seen a T-shirt I did not recognize, and then noticed similarly unfamiliar legs, let's say, then unknown arms and hands, that my heart would have stopped, and that my last living thought on this earth would not have been, as I had always hoped it would be, of my wife and my love for her, and the delight and beauty she stood for in my life, but instead that there was at least some small justice in the fact that neither the shirt nor the heart under it that had stopped was my own. And although I would not have had time to relish the oddity of such an epitaph, it would nonetheless be some consolation, since the person lying dead on the pond roundabout would after all not be me. I would be somewhere else, presumably, which, as I say, is where, at that moment, I very much wanted to be, borne away by those waters, rather than swept under by them. And then, as if the pain of actually committing this stupid act of looking down to see if I was really me was not enough, I suffered the additional humiliation of thinking of pinching myself to see if I might be dreaming. This media-inspired thought too entered my sorry noodle, smacking into the dam, so to speak, adding insult to injury.
At the moment, however, my own self-esteem was the least of my concerns. I had asked her a question, the key question, indeed the last question in the world, which, if not answered in some miraculously satisfactory manner, was, I felt, going to be the end of me. Or at least the end of the me on earth as I knew it. I don't believe I was ever as still as I was right then. It was as if my mind had slowed down in time with my breathing. I was oblivious to the pond, the sky, the trees. Whether other joggers passed as we stood there I don't know. I knew for example that there were important, even life-threatening consequences involved in this moment, and that I should be thinking about them. But I just could not force myself to do so. It was a kind of hiatus, like standing between the outside and inside doors in the winter, where, for a moment, you are nowhere and yet not unhappy. It seemed a very long time before she began to move her mouth, to utter a sound, and I watched her lips first part slightly, as if in slow motion, revealing a little white of that dark tooth, then move forward into a puckered position. "What bus?" she said.
I'm sure it is safe to say that, from her perspective, I looked confused. Standing there like a sod, I must have looked muddled. That is probably how she would have put it, had she described the way I looked to someone else. A third party, so to speak, to whom she might have related this encounter. "He look confused, muddled." Yes, that is what she would say, exactly those words. "He didn't seem to know where he was, your honor." And then she would raise those little thin eyebrows of hers, which I knew she plucked, with that trade-mark clench of forehead skin riddling across above them, fading up under the black bangs, give that annoying shrug of her too-small, too-round shoulders, and perhaps complete the whole performance with that disingenuous raising and relaxing motion of the forearms that was so much her. Or better yet, use the old open palms up routine. A bit of cinema. She was not above that. And she would say, with feeling of course, always with feeling, "He just stood there looking so lost." (slight pause, perhaps a very a small shake of the head over the incomprehensible nature of the incident) "I felt sorry for him."
"You felt sorry for him?"
She pauses, hesitates, as if she is really thinking it over, so thoughtful, even on this small point. Then: "Yes. I did."
"And would you say that sorrow was the predominant emotion you felt at that moment?"
Here she would sense a trap, not sure what was coming but knowing she might improve upon "sorrow."
"Well, of course I was alarmed. I was stunned." And she looks around, as if to say, Who wouldn't be?
Yes, that would be how she would play it.
And now, since I was not responding to the words, "What bus?"--although confusion was not exactly what I was feeling--words my brain was resolutely refusing to process--she smiled, wanting it to be a joke, and reached out and held my arm, my right arm, just above the elbow, held it affectionately even, with her left hand, holding her arm out straight the way a mother might do with a little boy, holding him there for a moment at arm's length while she gives him one last look over, perhaps wiping something from his nose with a Kleenex, seeing that everything is properly tucked and stowed, that the collar is fastened, the medals shined, before giving him that familiar little dismissive half-push, half-spin, off you go, as if he were a top or a curling stone, spinning off, out of control. Go little boy. Go off into the world now and do what you must. Which of course, is what I feared.
Half laughing, she gave my arm a little pressure and shake, and said gently, "What are you talking about?"
She was really looking me over now, still smiling. Eye to eye. My own arm, my right arm, now came up below hers, bending at the elbow, lightly cupped her elbow and held it. I think I feared she might just turn and bolt and I'd never see her again.
"And did she?"
"But at that moment it was your main worry. Your dominant emotion was a fear of losing her."
"And you feel that explains what you did next?"
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