A White Egret Surrounded by Black
Patty SomloVirginia Bell thinks she hears a cat crying. Gradually, she eases open her eyes and looks toward the floor past the end of the bed. Light falls in an angle from the dormer window. Her heart flutters. She wonders when the crying is going to stop.
She turns and looks at the empty space next to her. Paul hasn’t been here for two months and Virginia’s heart hasn’t stopped fluttering.
Paul was only fifty-five and hardly ever got a cold.
He’s had a heart attack, Virginia.
Heart attack? People like Paul don’t have heart attacks. Paul hikes and swims and dances and tells the best jokes. His heart can’t possibly have stopped.
Virginia still refuses to accept that Paul died before she got to the hospital. Every morning when she wakes up, there is that dreamy moment between waking and sleep in which she believes that Paul is still here. But seconds later the cold, dark dread clutches her chest and she understands that he is gone.
Ever since Paul died, Virginia has been reliving pieces of their time together. It’s the only way she knows how to hold onto him.
It was March and the rain had been coming down without letup for weeks. Virginia had gotten so depressed from the ceaseless gray days that she had done way too much shopping for clothes. Pants, sweaters and dresses hung in her closet unworn, with the tags still hanging expectantly from thin plastic strips. The shopping filled up the empty hours on weekend days and the new clothes made her feel as if some exciting change was about to come into her life.
On Saturday morning as Virginia was thinking about going downtown to see what was on sale at Nordstrom’s, the phone rang. It was her friend Dana.
“I’m inviting a guy to the Academy Awards party you might like,” Dana said.
Virginia drew a small square on the pad next to the telephone.
“A single guy?”
Virginia smirked, though Dana couldn’t see Virginia’s face from where she sat in her bedroom on the other side of town.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him. He’s divorced.”
Virginia could hear the wind rattling glass in the pane.
“So why didn’t it work out?”
“His wife had an affair.”
“Well, she must have had reason to.”
Dana exhaled loudly into the phone. Virginia pictured the creases of exasperation forming around Dana’s mouth.
“He’s a nice guy, Virginia. His name is Paul. You don’t have to marry him. Actually, you don’t even have to talk to him. But I thought the two of you just might hit it off.”
Virginia took the tags off several new sweaters and pants and put them on in different combinations in front of the full-length mirror. She switched the outfits around, tried on several different pairs of shoes, and then settled on a mint green turtleneck that matched the color of her eyes, black pants and a pair of black clogs. She tied and retied a Victorian floral-print scarf.
When she finally finished dressing, Virginia saw that she was late. She dashed around the apartment, trying to remember everything she was supposed to bring.
With a spinach salad, a baguette and a bottle of sparkling cider, Virginia’s hands were too full to ring the doorbell at Dana’s house. The door opened on its own.
“Looks like our food delivery is here,” a man Virginia had never seen before shouted back into the house.
He turned toward Virginia and laughed. He was tall with blue eyes.
“You must be Virginia. I think we’re supposed to meet.”
“Yes, I think we are.”
He put his arms out to take the salad bowl from Virginia’s hands
“Who do you think’s gonna win best picture?” he asked.
Virginia looked up toward the porch roof as if she were thinking hard about the question.
“Who do you think’s gonna have the worst dress on?”
Lying in bed all these years later, Virginia can’t remember what she and Paul talked about that night. Mostly she recalls sitting across from him at Dana’s polished mahogany dining room table, talking and occasionally glancing at the TV to his left. She also remembers thinking to herself, He’s cute. Why didn’t Dana tell me he was cute?
When Virginia got home that night, she heard the phone ringing the moment she walked in the door.
“I couldn’t wait to call you,” Dana said.
“Obviously. I just walked in the door, Dana.”
Virginia nestled the receiver between her shoulder and her ear while she set the salad bowl down on the table.
“He’s funny. I like him.”
“I said you would. So, do you have plans?”
“We’re going for a hike.”
Dana was silent for a moment. Virginia waited, since it was Dana’s turn to talk.
“That’s a long way off.”
Virginia studied her hands, noticing the dry skin and two cracks next to the nails where she had recently bled.
“I didn’t want to rush things. Make mistakes. Like in the past.”
“I think this is going to turn into something.”
Virginia can still picture Paul standing in the hallway when she opened her apartment door. He was wearing a pair of nicely worn jeans and a blue tee-shirt which nearly matched his eyes.
Miraculously for Western Oregon in April, the sun was shining and Paul put the top down on his red sports car. Virginia pressed the window up on her side, to keep the wind from tangling her hair.
That afternoon they drove out to the Columbia Gorge. The river, lakes and streams along the highway glittered in the sun. Early spring flowers spilled over the hillsides on both sides of the trail, later that afternoon as Paul and Virginia walked.
When they stopped at a spot overlooking the river for lunch, Paul told Virginia that he had a hard time growing up. His father, Paul said, was abusive and demanding.
“It took three years of therapy before I figured out that my father was disappointed in himself,” Paul said. “I always believed he was disappointed in me.”
Virginia studied Paul as he talked, worried because she found his company so pleasant. He seemed kind. Virginia wondered what terrible traits he was hiding. And what drove his wife to have an affair.
Virginia watched the wind lift a strand of Paul’s hair and blow it back across his eyes. She noticed threads of silver interwoven amongst the brown, and as he brushed hair back across his forehead that his fingers were slender and long.
Virginia stretched her legs out and took a bite of sourdough and Jarlsberg cheese. She picked up her camera to take a photograph of Paul on the sunny hillside. Paul saw her with the camera and posed, holding a strawberry in front of his mouth by the tips of its green stem. As Virginia snapped the picture, Paul put his head back, lowered the strawberry and took a bite from the bright red end.
Paul James’ widow. She had said it countless times during these last four weeks. After seven years of marriage, Virginia still hadn’t grown accustomed to the phrase Paul James’ wife. Now, she had the rest of her life to get used to being his widow.
How could he do this to her? The thought that Paul wasn’t coming back made Virginia want to throw something. If Paul were here now, she would tell him how angry she felt. She would use the I form she had learned in therapy. I am angry at you, Paul. Not accusing him or blaming. Even though she knew this was all his fault.
They hadn’t even talked about death. Preferences. Coffins or cremation. He had simply abandoned her, all by herself, having to decide. Paul would have left it up to her anyway. She planned all the weekend getaways and vacations, the garden, and renovations to the house. She would show him pictures, read from brochures, and quote him the price, the only part he ever really cared about. And then he would nod, smile and say, Sounds good, honey.
If Paul had been here, she knew he would never have spent that kind of money for a coffin. Especially since he was dead. When the man quoted her the price of the coffin, Virginia heard Paul’s response. Eight thousand dollars? Do you know what we could buy with eight thousand dollars?
Cremation. Paul would have preferred the clean Buddhist nature of it.
But then she had to decide what to do with the ashes.
Six months after Virginia and Paul met, they celebrated her forty-third birthday over dinner at an expensive restaurant downtown. After dinner, Paul asked Virginia to marry him. They were sitting in his car, parked under the streetlight, in front of his house. Virginia had just pulled the door handle towards her when Paul said, Virginia, I think we should get married.
Virginia had waited for a man to say those words ever since she first imagined hearing them from Elvis, Frankie Avalon and Tab Hunter when she was a little girl. She pulled the car door shut and asked Paul to repeat what he had said. Then Virginia told Paul that she would. Marry him.
The morning after Paul died, Virginia sat across the table from Dana, fiddling with her hair.
“I don’t know what we should do,” Virginia said.
Mostly, Virginia wanted to stop crying.
“I never even went to my parents’ funerals,” she continued, picking at the skin next to her nails as she looked down at her hands. “I’m so disconnected from everything about life. All the rituals. We had no religion. The most I can say is that if Paul and I had to choose, we would probably pick the Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhists. But that’s not enough of a reason to have a Buddhist funeral or service. God, I don’t even know what Buddhists do when someone dies.”
“It doesn’t have to be religious, Virginia,” Dana said and reached her hand across the table to touch Virginia’s arm. “We could just have a small remembrance. Ask people to say something about Paul, what they remember about him.”
Virginia was furious again and weeping. She slammed her hand against the table and the pain shot up her arm.
“You talk as if he’s been gone for years. Remembrance? He was just here last week.”
“Well, we don’t have do anything if you don’t want to,” Dana said, clipping her words off at the end, as if she had a hard sour piece of candy in her mouth.
“I’m sorry, Virginia. I didn’t mean to get upset at you. It’s all so awful and I’m sorry for making it worse.”
Virginia decided to keep the ashes. To scatter them somewhere seemed like such a sudden goodbye. She put them in an urn that she set on the small wicker table next to her side of the bed and then worried this meant she was going to turn into a crazy old lady who talked to her husband’s ashes.
She wondered if losing Paul would have been easier if she had children. Or relatives who would stay to make dinner and sit with her at night when the house was too quiet. Paul’s sister from Idaho had said she would come for the service but Virginia told her not to bother. A few friends getting together. Very simple, Virginia had explained. What Paul would have liked. Virginia had no one but a sister who didn’t speak to her. And parents Virginia hadn’t seen for years before they died.
Virginia couldn’t even watch TV without thinking of Paul. Before they got married, Virginia didn’t own a television. Paul had a wide-screen color set. She and Paul made a ritual of nights with rented videos and popcorn, on the futon stretched out across the living room floor, their heads propped up with pillows. Virginia cried now just looking at the blank screen.
Virginia has given herself a month to grieve, and today is the one-month anniversary of Paul’s death. Today she must take a shower, dry her hair and get dressed. Today she must call Sheila, her therapist, and make an appointment. Today she must talk to her boss about going back to work. Today she must begin her life again.
Virginia walks downstairs and looks at the piles of mail scattered across the dining room table. Today she will look at the mail. Dana has paid the bills these last four weeks because Virginia couldn’t bear to look at the mail and see Paul’s name there.
Today Virginia will call the credit card companies and tell them Paul James is dead. She can hear the conversation.
Hello, this is Ashley. How may I help you today?
Stop billing my husband, Ashley. Paul James is dead.
Virginia makes a cup of coffee and pads out to the patio in her pink fuzzy slippers. Paul bought Virginia the slippers for Christmas because her feet were always cold. When Virginia opened the box and pulled out the soft fat slipper, she laughed.
“You know, I never thought I’d be old enough to wear anything like this.”
Virginia stands on the small brick patio and looks at the overgrown garden surrounding it. She is surprised to see that the daffodils are in bloom. This is the first year she completely missed their arrival.
Virginia is also surprised that the chill is gone from the air and it’s almost warm enough to wear shorts. She sniffs the sleeve of her sweatshirt, wondering how many weeks have passed since she washed it.
She pads back up to the house and drags a chair out to the patio from the kitchen. She feels like crying again. How can she possibly go on without Paul?
She always worried about him leaving her. Ever since their first date. Didn’t everyone she loved leave her? Paul’s loving Virginia seemed too good to be true, so Virginia assumed it wouldn’t last. She was jealous of the time Paul spent away from her. Some nights when she was alone, she sat in the dark, convinced that he had been killed in a car accident. Only when the phone rang and she heard his voice did she believe he was still alive.
Virginia looks down at the brick patio and starts crying again. The design of the patio had been hers, a wave of brick undulating down the length of the side yard. Their friend Will had put the patio in and later showed Virginia how the bricks went from dark to light. Like Virginia’s life.
After years of darkness, Paul had been the light, Virginia thinks, as she follows the movement of the brick wave slowly with her eyes. Even this house she and Paul bought together was light. Full of bright interior colors and windows.
Virginia glances around the garden and stops at the star jasmine entwined in the trellis she and Paul set against the wooden fence. She remembers how before they put the trellis up, the jasmine would latch onto her whenever she got near.
Before Paul, Virginia had spent her whole life trying to attach herself to people, only to be pushed away. She had sat in a comfortable gray leather chair across from her therapist Sheila talking and weeping about all the failed relationships she’d had. It was Sheila that finally told Virginia to end the last relationship with Jerry, who only had time to spend with Virginia when she told him she wanted to call it quits.
Virginia looks up when she hears a strange clucking sound. The orange cat that frequents the garden is staring up at the fig tree where a small squirrel sits batting its tail against the branch and making that funny sound. The cat doesn’t move and neither does the squirrel. Virginia wonders how long they will stay like that.
Virginia wishes Paul were here now to show him the cat and the squirrel. Paul loved cats, taking time to lure every cat he passed on the street closer for long slow pets and scratches. Paul hadn’t stopped mourning the death of his cat Alvin, years after Alvin died. How long would she be mourning Paul?
Virginia pads back into the house and stops next to the dining room table. Where should she begin with the mail? She reaches across the table and picks up a square cream-colored envelope. She opens it slowly and breathes.
Virginia looks at the photograph on the front of the card. A white egret surrounded by black. Beautiful and haunting. A little sad.
She puts the card down and picks up another from the stack. It’s from her neighbor, Mary, she sees from the return address. Virginia feels exhausted already.
She lifts her arm and sniffs the sweatshirt she’s worn for days.
“Maybe a shower is what I need,” she says and pads slowly across the house toward the bathroom.
Virginia lets the water massage her shoulders and neck and then turns to let the shower sprinkle her face. Tears mix with the water that’s cleaning her and she lets them run down her face.
Then, suddenly, the tears stop and she gazes down at the drain, imagining the sorrow sliding into the pipes and eventually flowing out to the street.
A bird’s song slices through the morning’s silence after Virginia turns off the tap.
“Spring,” Virginia says to her reflection in the mirror. “I almost missed it.”
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