Essays on Grief and Recovery
By Joel Peckham
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Joel Peckham
All rights reserved.
His wife shuffles to his bed. They part, when the shades are bright, she sleeps, eyes opened. To stay with him, he would need to ask the light to shade its rising, she would need to ask the sun to let her speak, he would need to ask her words to shame him quiet. — "Lovers," Susan Atefat-Peckham
But there are stories that don't have beginnings, I tell my students as I limp toward the whiteboard, marker in hand — ready to attack and dismantle the Freytag triangle — its neat symmetry, its infuriating geometry. I take a deep breath. Where we start is everything, all is exposition, and no truths are as simple as this. So "Tell me a story / In this century and moment of mania, / Tell me a story." But where to start. And who is the story about.
Cyrus and Darius have finally drifted off after thirty minutes of storytelling and singing. Energized by a day in the Wadi-Ram, riding across the desert in jeeps, exploring caves, running their thin fingers along the ancient glifs on stone the color of a dying rose, exhausted by the long drive, nervous from strange, dusty beds, and yet another new world, nervous from the separation from mother and grandmother, they have gone off to sleep unwillingly — the way children will, as if fearing that submission to darkness, that complete relinquishing of control. Susan is separated from us by a dingy hallway and two double-bolted doors. We are in a hotel in Aqaba and the night is desert cold. Outside the streets are still busy, still hum with commerce; and the scent of garlic and grilled meat mixes with the exhaust fumes that permeate the building. So we are apart again. As so many nights before. And our coming together is less frequent. Intimacy has given way to the bitterness of a long and desperate drifting apart — like two rafts connected by a slender cord, pulling apart, only to be jerked angrily back. In the room across the hall she sleeps next to her mother and she dreams. The next morning, heading to the bazaar to look for children's clothes, she tells me that her eyes hurt. That she was running toward a light all night and that she can't shake that blinding glare. She tells me less and less about her dreams. She has been hearing voices for months now. She tells me her poems are written by others. That she is a medium. And she tells me at first with wide-open eyes — eyes that stun every man and most women with their beauty and their dark, warm passion. But I know she is floating up and away from me like a piece of paper torn from a book by the wind, and I watch her the way people might watch a miracle — with reverence but also genuine fear — and not a little sense of one's own unworthiness; and so the stares always get harder, sadder. Her telling has lost hope. She doesn't believe she can reach me. And I guess she can't. It is always Ariel and Caliban. She, too much in love with the next world, and I, too much in love with this one.
Susan has come to Aqaba as she has come everywhere. Wanting to be open to the people and the world but also finding that it never lives up to her expectations. She is always disappointed in the frailty of others, though she doesn't give up on them easily. The previous night we had gone down to the coast and watched as the Muslim women swam fully clothed, backlit in the evening light. Under the tent, sipping tea, I found them tragically beautiful. But I am a westerner and what seems confining and sad to me is simply their world. A world they seem to swim through with the comfort of knowing its borders. A world they step into as I step into the lake by our house in Georgia — easily and without the shock of cold. A different element but not a different temperature. My life with Susan has been a gradual coming to terms with limitation — what I can and cannot comprehend. Just how far I can go. And I've learned it is not so far as either of us need. When we make love, she looks away — far off, as if she is looking into a future peace or reckoning. Alain, the head of the Fulbright program, calls me "the satellite," always circling Susan and her mother, boys in hand. Never at the center. Taking what comes to me without joy or anger or even humor. Just circling. And I accept it. What else can I do? But Susan cannot. I can gauge her discomfort. Her desire to dive in with these women. To be with them and understand them. But she will not go in fully clothed. She never could. The point is total immersion. And so she won't go in at all. She will sit and sip her tea pensively. Eyes stealing quick glances full of longing, then dropping down to the table, narrowing in fury at her saucer of tea — overfull and spilling with every accidental bump and jostle made by the evening revelers.
A mile down the beach, the resort hotel gleams in coral splendor. There, separated by a long concrete pier, the westerners swim silently in their bikinis, ignorant to what goes on here — the loud laughter. Louder arguments. The tables too close together. The pungent odor of cheap cigarettes and boiling leaves. As always she struggles. Who is she? Where does she belong? Married to a man who can't really understand her. Mother to children oblivious to anything but the moment. Daughter to immigrants who can't shake a longing for the gardens of their mothers and grandmothers, the huge dinner feasts, the music of Farsi. Wanting to dive in without giving in. To lose herself and keep herself.
Cyrus stands on the beach. He was cold. So in this photograph he wears my mother-in-law's long gold coat that reaches to the sand beneath him. And he looks exactly like some gaudy Christmas ornament. His head is bent down and he's smiling his closed-mouth, embarrassed sweet smile. Once a colleague, himself traveling headlong toward death, said to him "you are too beautiful for this world. Too beautiful for this world." But this day at the resort has been made for Cyrus, warm and happy with sandcastles, bright blue water and rides on the glass-bottomed boat in which he and his brother can marvel at the coral and bright fishes that swim through caves, their shadows and light. Even with his lids happily shut, you can tell he has his mother's eyes. Even cut short, his mother's hair. Like one soul in two bodies.
Cyrus stands at the top of the driveway in Michigan in his red snowsuit. Two years later, that suit will sit lonely in the basement of a rented house. Waiting for his father to claim it. But now, he puffs out warm breath and screams delightedly. As his father turns the corner, almost tipping the sled. Yanks hard on the rope and runs down the hill — boots slipping and stomping. His mother watches from the window and laughs brightly.
Susie and I are in a darkened room of the hospital. I hold a bedpan as she throws up into it, her skin as pale as a silent movie star's. Cyrus has just been born and he has been born hard into the world. The nurse scribbles notes in a log book at the other corner of the room. Neither Susie nor I have seen the baby since they took him from her arms on the operating table. He had come through the wide cut in her abdomen, blue and not breathing. When I asked the doctor if he was okay, the nurse said quietly, We just have to get him going. Seconds passed. Susie was crying and her heart rate and blood pressure were dropping, her body reacting to the epidural. I thought I was about to lose them both right then.
Darius has a large stick and is drawing something in the sand. Every once in a while, he picks up a handful and throws it at his brother, who responds by clenching his teeth and shaking his fists inches beneath his brother's chin. Watching from the water's edge, I nervously hold back, rocking heel to toe in anticipation of a sudden attack. Cyrus has belted his brother before. Though I suspect his fury comes from an excess of passion — some kind of overflow of love and frustration. And I understand this. Understand it more than I want to admit to myself. A few months earlier in Georgia, Darius had accidentally locked himself in their room and Cyrus dropped to his knees in the hallway and started wailing. I'd never heard him cry so hard; deep, desperate sobs. Though freeing Darius was easy enough — inserting one end of a paperclip into a hole in the door — Cyrus was upset for a long while afterwards, saying, "I couldn't live without my brother. I couldn't live without my brother," wrapping his thin arms around his sibling tightly enough to make him squeal in pain.
Like me, Akmed appears in only a handful of the hundreds of photos later saved from the chip in Susan's digital camera — staring out happily and squint-eyed from the bench on the glass-bottomed boat or holding the rope to a camel bearing my two sons — one laughing with delight, one screaming in fear. And yet, to me he was as much a part of the picture as anyone in the family. I'd never met anyone who I had so instinctively trusted and liked. One of the first truly genuinely spiritual people I had ever known other than Susan, our Palestinian teacher and guide had become a constant companion to us over the previous weeks. Ever since we'd met him on the bus to Jarash and hired him as a teacher of Arabic, we had felt more at ease with our lives in Amman. Akmed greased the wheel for us, warding off beggars and hostile young men. Returning from a trip to the Dead Sea we had gotten stranded for several hours in a small, Bedouin town poor enough to be dangerous. To every angry beggar, every political-minded station attendant, Akmed attested to our good Muslim principles — even though it was obvious to everyone that this blond-haired, blue-eyed foreigner was about as Muslim as baseball and hot dogs. But he deflected their anger, disbelief, and frustration with a smile and grace that left everyone smiling, even those of us ignorant of what he was saying. In fact, without Akmed, the trip itself would never have been possible. We had suggested the two-day adventure to him over Turkish coffee, baklava, and Iranian gaz during a break in our language lessons, offering to pay for his hotel room and food. Akmed, as always, was delighted to help. But on the morning of our departure, he discovered that there were no tour buses to Aqaba on Fridays — a holy day to Muslims. I remember the knock on the door, his bright, smiling eyes and busy hands, gesturing us out toward the beat-up minivan on the sidewalk. At first I was hesitant. As with our trip to Jarash, I worried about trying to see the country as Susie had wanted — traveling as Jordanians did. All the Fulbright information pamphlets had told us to stick with tour companies and to stay in western resorts. We were also supposed to inform the Fulbright office of our movements at all times. But again, we would go off without anyone knowing where we were or how we would go there.
Susan's impulsiveness, a trait I had come to love in her, seemed a bit reckless now. Before the trip, both Susan and I had deflected the concerns of friends with similar statements. To fear death is to fear life, I told my department chair. And I believed it. I still do. But Susan's recent submersion into mysticism had left me worried. There was a fatalism that frightened me. In one conversation she told me that if something happened to us, she hoped we at least all died together. I stared at my two boys, just awakening to the wonders and terrors of this world and thought, No. Looking back on it, I realize that by that time, I had lost enthusiasm for following Susie on adventures that seemed always to be hers and not my own. That the idea of death did not disturb me as much as blindly following her towards it with our children, my children, towed behind us.
But Akmed settled me; he had brought a measure of peace into our married life. For years, Susan and I had cultivated an image of marital bliss. In public I'd find her hand on my shoulder or my back, her fingers searching along my neck and up into my hair. She knew how to make me melt, how to turn my brooding intensity off for a time. And I would look over at her and remember the first time I had seen her walk into that Byron Seminar at Baylor University, dressed in a white-lace top and black velvet skirt. She dazzled me. Beautiful and brilliant and ten times the writer I would ever be. She was everything I ever wanted, and I wanted to be the perfect man for her. That I couldn't haunts me now. That my performance was good enough that she married me is almost harrowing. Recently my father-in-law told me that he was always against the marriage, that he knew that we were from different cultures and different classes of people, and that he knew that our marriage would only lead to tragedy for us both. And even up to a week before the accident, I had overheard my mother-in-law telling Susan that "the only reason you married Joel was because you slept with him." A statement that seemed loaded with bitter irony even then. Susan had always defended me in these kinds of arguments. But in all honesty, we both had strong misgivings that the marriage was a mistake. As early as a year into our life together, the cracks were showing in the foundations. No longer able to put a swaggering spin on my natural inwardness, my self-doubts, my frustrations with the academic profession, my inability to find fulfilling work, I became a dark and bitter man with whom to share a home. I believe that to keep from being pulled under with me, Susan pulled away. Our apartment turned silent. And Susie would sit for half a day in front of a blank canvas. For a time she began spending hours and hours with a local poet and artist, who, ironically, was more embittered than I was. But who doted on her. Who made her feel wanted and needed. I lost her heart and was never truly able to get it back again. Intimacy became a scheduled event. Something to be marked in Susan's daily planner to prove to both of us that our marriage was "fine." Heightening the tension was Susan's desperate desire to leave the United States. She had grown up in Switzerland and she wanted to return. Already depressed and poor with languages, I feared for my sanity should I follow her across the Atlantic. She didn't want to visit; she wanted to return to stay. And no matter how I tried I couldn't pursue that path. Even when I told her I would go with her, she knew that I didn't want to. That it would be something I was doing for her and that it would only make me more bitter. That was something she didn't want. So we rotted from the inside out.
But the outside looked wonderful. We made a beautiful couple walking into a function or a book fair. And when we did readings together our mutual and genuine admiration for each other as writers and artists was received with warmth. Today, even talking with shared friends of our problems is difficult because we both played the roles of doting husband and wife so well. I often look back and wonder why the image of a perfect marriage was so important to Susan. In truth I think it was important to both of us. What we projected to others was the marriage we both wanted to have but couldn't have with each other — the marriage I hope to have one day. And there were so many things we genuinely loved about each other. To say that Susan was a great writer and teacher would be an injustice. She was one of a kind — like everyone else attending her readings or listening to her speak, I'd find myself slipping back easily into the admiration I had for her — the sense of worship and thankfulness you get when you encounter a truly open spirit, someone who can teach you of the world, push you into new territories. I'd like to think that we both made each other better writers, that we pushed each other and supported each other in our art. But admiration, even affection, is not love. Left to ourselves, in private, we fought a silent war of attrition, as if trying to force the other one to break the beautiful illusion we had created, to walk out the door and shatter the glass behind us. So many arguments ended with "Why don't you just leave?" "What can I do? I'll do anything," and "It's too late; it's just too late." And it was. I remember at one conference, we were walking arm in arm, and a young writer came up to us with a sly smile, offering us a condom with her journal's name on it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Resisting Elegy by Joel Peckham. Copyright © 2011 Joel Peckham. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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