When they were first married they'd made a lot of rules. One of them lay broken on the kitchen countertop. An opened envelope, addressed to her from a law firm. Somebody, Someone, and Anybody. Since when had John started opening her mail?
She pulled out the contents. In her hand, long legal paper -- "Re: The estate of George Westerberg"
And then, for a the time it takes light to bounce from the page to the eye, from the eye to the mind, from the mind to the soul, the physics of the kitchen changed and she felt herself falling through the floor to the center of the world.
She bit her lip to stop the gasp. She clenched her jaw to stop the groan. But for all of her effort, she could not stop the tears.
She grabbed a paper tissue and held it to her nose, then her eyes, which were running as if she had been cutting onions.
"What's a matter, mom?" asked her son, looking into the refrigerator, then slamming the door.
She told him it was allergies. "Where is your father?"
"Dunno," the boy said, already in the living room. Plopped onto the sofa, TV remote in hand.
And when the sound of the television enveloped the boy in the other room, she let herself breathe and his ocean swept over her.
She stopped herself from saying what was coming up her throat.
In her head she heard him saying the words.
When I am gone it gets cold I and think of nothing
And wait like ice
To see the poetry we have written in blood.
This is why I love you
I remember when we called your eyes green
I remember when the color of your hair was
The color of your hair
Wait like ice, my eyes will be blue, my hair yellow
I will choose names for every stone on the beach
And feel the ice that melts to rivers inside you
No matter how cold or far I am
You will remember me.
Then she couldn't stop it. "Oh my God."
The front door swung open in disrespectful squeaking. Then John's voice, blasphemy.
"Where's your mother? Turn that damned thing down you can't hear yourself think in here."
The TV muted. The boy said, "She's in the kitchen crying," and she balled up the tissue and held it to her face. Then she took two more and dabbed at her eyes.
She tried not to look at John when he came in. Blew her nose.
She heard him say, "Wanna tell me what that is?" and she stopped herself from telling him to shut up. Go away.
"I don't know."
"Who is he?"
"He left you something. Book of poems. What the hell does that mean? How am I supposed to react to this? Will you tell me?"
She didn't answer and John sighed. She saw his shoulders droop. He looked at the dog's food dish on the floor in the corner. He said, "I'm sorry," to his feet. "Look, it was a bad day. I didn't know you'd be working late. Then the call came in from your law office over there, I didn't know what to think. They need you to go to Pine Mountain something or another. Beth, look, what is all this?"
But in her mind she heard his voice and saw him the last time again, turning to wave, smiling, cresting the Pine Island Bay overlook, disappearing down the back side as if into the sea. His voice was deep and black like distant waves crashing in the night.
"You're making a mistake."
"I don't think so."
And she could no longer keep the tears in check. Let them flow unabated. Let herself believe him for the first time.
"Honey, who was he?" John said, his voice breaking the way it did when he was scared. Reminded her how she disliked him when he was frightened. "Tell me he was before we met."
The words that passed between them.
"I still love John."
"What is love, anyway?"
"That's a stupid question."
"Not if you're going to use it against me. What is love? How do you know you're in it?"
"Don't be silly."
"You want love? I'll show you."
"He, um..." she wanted to tell John, who didn't ask her to explain. "He...I tried..."
She was quiet remembering the rest. How she chased him to the brink, reached toward him as gravity pulled him over. Losing her balance and stepping forward into the abyss.
And then having the ground touch her toe where there should have been the ocean air, and the surprise of the ground so close, unable to keep her feet underneath her as she rolled onto the grassy slope next to George who lay there laughing, smiling.
"You bastard," she said, punching him once the adrenaline hit her and she realized what she'd done. "I thought it was...you should be dead. I thought you fell off. You goddamned bastard."
And he laughed and held her arms, wrestled, pressed her onto her back and crawled over her, staring down into her eyes.
"You saved me. See, how life is a poem? That's how much you love me."
And he kissed her and she resisted to make a point that lasted for only a few seconds.
John watched her crying, apart from it, and stammered about it being okay, whatever happened before they met. It was a rule. He didn't talk about old girlfriends -- and she glared at him. Muttered about there not being any. He tried to pull her close, but she squirmed out of his grasp. It was not what she needed. His voice, the wrong one. "Honey, why didn't you ever tell me?"
"I'm sorry," she said. Walked past him. Shouted to her boy, "George, shut off that goddamned TV." Went up the stairs to the bathroom, locked the door, sat on the toilet lid, remembered every one of his poems. Told him she was never afraid. It wasn't that.
It was that she didn't know.