Lost Time

They met on the side of the street, at the door of a cab, to be exact, that they had both hailed, and ended up sharing for a two hour ride to the train station. They were inseparable from that moment on. Six months later they married.

Friends and relatives asked them what was responsible for their passion, their instant attraction, and their powerful bond. “All I know,” said Helen, “is that he’s the only man I’ve ever met who gets me.” Eyebrows were raised, as if to say, That’s it? “That’s everything,” Helen replied, and there was such genuine fervor, such awestruck conviction in her tone that they looked away, every one of them, as if embarrassed that they hadn’t known this. Joe offered no explanation, except to say that everything in his life that had come before Helen was a step toward her, a means to an end, which he recognized the first time he kissed her, as they prepared to part ways at the train station where the cab let them out. Suddenly, she was irresistible to him in her leather jacket and black sunglasses, her long reddish blond hair caught in the straps of her shoulder bag. Impulsively he leaned down and kissed her. The moment he realized she was kissing him back was the moment he knew. Ten minutes later they were still locked in each other’s embrace, as if for dear life, while the meter continued to run.

That night and every night afterward before going to sleep, Helen asked Joe, “Do I get to keep you for one more day?” Most of the time, he said yes. Occasionally, following one of his darker days, he would respond with maybe. Sometimes his dark days would stretch into dark weeks, and once in awhile, even dark months. “There’s medication he could take,” solicitous friends would say. “Is that right?” Helen would respond, as if this were news to her. They were, after all, well-intentioned. If they persisted, she would lay it on the line for them. “We know the options,” she’d say. “But medication has side effects. To the last one, they steal away his creativity, which means he can’t write music. And if Joe can’t write music, he doesn’t want to live. It’s who he is.”

Over the years, Helen learned how to keep her own sanity close and intact while Joe danced wildly to the edge and back with his, again and again. If she ever thought to leave him; if it ever dawned on her that a better life awaited her without him; if she ever contemplated giving him an ultimatum that involved “getting fixed or getting out;” she never gave voice to it, to anyone. To her son, she said, “Life isn’t easy most of the time. What’s worth having is worth fighting for, and you’re going to bleed in the process. But you’ll laugh more too, and harder, and you won’t jump with joy, you’ll soar; and when you have to be apart from what it is you truly love, you’ll feel like nothing else matters except closing that gap. Nothing. And when you do there’s calm again. That’s how you know what’s worth keeping.

Once, well into their marriage of forty years, Helen posed her ritual question to Joe and he responded with a maybe that turned out to be a no. On that night, Helen tossed and turned, sleeping fitfully and only in short, dreamless bursts. When she awoke from one of these toward dawn, Joe’s side of the bed was empty. Instinctively she knew he was gone, not just from the bed or even the house, but from her life. She jumped out of bed as if there were something to be done, as if some expedient action was called for, and would change the circumstance of his absence.

He had taken nothing – no clothes, no books, none of his personal belongings – with one exception; the small gilt-framed photograph of her that he kept always on the nightstand next to his pillow, the one taken shortly after they first met all those years ago. He had taken her picture: he wasn’t coming back.

Helen did her best to project an atmosphere of normalcy, of routine. She walked the dog, she showered, she went to work. She prepared meals as usual, only she didn’t eat them. She opened books and stared at the pages, and she went to bed at ten sharp as always, and rose at six, looking a little more gaunt and spent each successive morning. She was vague when asked where Joe was, waving away the questions with questions, redirected, of her own. All the while — her skin was on fire, her pulse raced, and her breath came short –running a marathon, her blood churning through her veins in a mad, blind dash to take her away from there, to him.

On the third morning, she began to cry. She cried in the car on the way to work, throughout the day in her office, and while driving home. She cried into the frying pan, over the sink, and down the shower drain. Upon awakening on the fourth day, she stripped the bed, carrying dripping sheets to the laundry. On the fifth day, her boss sent her home early, adding, “Take a sick day tomorrow.”

On the sixth day, Joe returned. He walked straight up to Helen and took her in his arms. “I wanted to be alone,” he confessed. “I thought it would be better that way, for both of us. But I couldn’t do it. Everything is worse when I’m not with you.” He began to cry. “All these years,” he sobbed. “How can you continue to live with me and not hate me? How do you stand it?”

Helen squeezed her eyes shut and placed her hand gently over his heart. “You’ve been gone less than a week,” she said. “And in that time, I’ve cried more than I ever did in all the years of you being here. I’ve stopped laughing, stopped wise-cracking, and stopped reading, the one thing I like to do most of all. I’ve barely been able to breathe. The question is not how I can continue to live with you. The question is how I can continue to live without you.”

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