Nothing was the same for Rhiannon after the police found her fiancé dead. She barely left her house. Her mother came over several times with dinner but Rhiannon always felt drained after trying to reassure her she was okay. She kept up her editing work, she needed to make money, but she retreated even from her sister, and she was closer to Emma than anyone. The only people she spoke to often were Jill and Ross. She kept telling them, “I just don’t know why this happened.”
Finally Jill said, “Look, we can unveil layers, but we can never know why things occur. Asking why is the ultimate distraction.”
“Is it?” Rhiannon wasn’t so sure. There had to be some lesson here. If everything was random, what was the point?
Jill listened patiently every time Rhiannon went over details of the story. How Sébastien was supposed to meet her for lunch. They’d planned to shop. He didn’t have a tie to match his suit and they were getting married in two weeks. When he didn’t show up at the restaurant or answer his cell, Rhiannon went to his apartment.
Sometimes Jill would try to stop her, but Rhiannon was compelled to keep repeating what happened. How she’d put her key in the lock and when she tried to open the door, saw the chain was still on. A chill ran through her then. He was home and not answering the door? The police found him sprawled on the floor, dead, when they broke in, a bag of white powder beside him. She howled when she saw him.
“Did you know your friend used cocaine?” one policeman asked.
“My fiancé,” Rhiannon said. She learned later the cause of death was heart attack, not uncommon for cocaine users. Though whose heart was being attacked, she couldn’t say. Sébastien was free. She was the one who had to clean up the mess of what was left of her life.
“Did you know he was using?” Jill asked.
“No. How would I know?”
It was weeks before Jill ventured to ask, “How could you not know?”
Why did Jill assume everything was as clear to other people as it was to her? Sébastien was always so put together when Rhiannon was with him. And she wasn’t with him that often. He was a workaholic. Jill knew that.
Rhiannon had explained to Jill that her mother was the hippy in the family. But Rhiannon wanted a quieter, more normal life. Her grandfather had been a wildcard too, though at one point he decided to slip under the radar and live a more conventional life. She understood that. The authentic self, the inauthentic self, she didn’t care about these things. She wanted a husband, a child. Was that too much to ask?
After a while Jill stopped calling every night, but she still dropped by once a week to make sure Rhiannon was okay. Rhiannon knew she should treat each day as if it were the longest unit of time and not think about the future. Live in the moment, her sister said and her mother agreed. But which moment? Sébastien’s death was what she thought about first thing every morning and last thing each night.
Jill said Rhiannon was obsessed with why, but this question was one way to keep Sébastien in the present, and Rhiannon wasn’t ready to let go. Would she ever find a man she loved as much? Would she ever marry?
Though Ross and Jill were both forty, only eight years older than Rhiannon, they knew the secrets of how marriage worked. Even their golden retriever, Yurick, was perfect, both beautiful and obedient. They led a charmed life and Rhiannon admired them.
“It doesn’t take great skill to buy wine,” Ross laughed one day when Rhiannon complimented him. “You just have to afford it.” Even in her grief, Ross could make her laugh. Once he told her about one of his patients who always reeled off a litany of ailments when she came to see him, complaining about her stomach, gallbladder, liver, kidneys. Ross referred to this as The Organ Recital.
When he replaced a lightbulb, he climbed up the ladder, then acted like he was performing major surgery, donning imaginary gloves and mask before, ceremoniously and with gravitas, unscrewing the bulb. She had to laugh. It took him a long time before the operation was complete.
“Yes, he’s quite the actor,” Jill said. “Once he starts something, it’s hard to get him to stop. But he’s hot,” she said, winking at Ross, “so I let him stick around.”
“What do you mean, ‘hard to get me to stop?’ I’m not obsessive,” he protested. “As for sexy, Day after day, there are girls at the office and the men will always be men,Wives should always be lovers too, run into his arms the moment he comes home to you…”
“What about Photoshop?” Jill said, ignoring his outburst into song. “For months the only place I could find Ross, when he wasn’t at the hospital, was at the computer. I used to call Photoshop the Divorce Software.”
“Ah, but we’re still together,” Ross said. He told a story about building a tree house in an oak in their yard when he and Jill lived in the suburbs. “I built it for Jill but she was afraid to climb up to it.”
“Everyone was afraid,” Jill said. “It was twenty feet off the ground.”
“If you were in better shape it wouldn’t have been a problem.”
How could Jill be in better shape, Rhiannon wondered. Statuesque was how she thought of her friend, very womanly, beautiful with her long hair that had turned prematurely white. She always felt a bit dowdy in comparison. Her hair was short and a mousy brown, her eyes small. At least her skin was clear and pretty. That was her best feature, she thought.
Rhiannon was always aware when Ross’s cold blue eyes rested on her. He’s so handsome, she thought. She had a dream about Ross a few times, a sexy dream in which Jill was absent. She felt vaguely guilty to be betraying Jill, even in a dream. She would have forgotten the dream entirely, but when a friend told her the terrible news, that the plane Jill was on had crashed the dream come flooding back. Now she would never see Jill again.
How was it possible that Jill was dead? She could hardly believe it.
“What are you talking about?” her sister asked when Rhiannon said she felt guilty. “You may have had a crush on Jill’s husband, but you’re not responsible for her plane going down.” Though Emma was Rhiannon’s kid sister, Rhiannon relied on her for advice.
“Don’t you think it’s bizarre that now Ross, too, has suffered a trauma, like I have?”
“Well,” Emma said, “you could invite him over.”
“It’s too soon.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say.” Then she told Rhiannon about an experience she’d had on the ward. An elderly woman had been admitted, suffering from heart failure. During the day the woman was surrounded by her adult children who were distraught and grieving. When Emma was alone with the woman, late in the evening, the patient said, “I’m ready to go. I’ve had a wonderful life.”
These words cheered Emma. “See you in the morning,” she said when her shift was over. The woman replied, “I hope not.”
Two nights later, when the woman’s son and daughter had gone home for a few hours rest, Emma was in her room when she heard her shout, “Into the wilderness.” She said it again, with what strength she could muster, and then she breathed her last breath.
“That’s how I want to go,” Emma said. “But more important, that’s how I want to live.” She said she wanted to treat each day as if were waiting to be explored. “You and I need to have as much courage living as that old woman had dying,” Emma said. The following week Rhiannon called Ross.
“It’s strange,” he said, after the initial greeting. “I never thought we’d have so much in common. I’m glad you called.”
His warmth encouraged her. “Are you ready to get together with friends?” she asked.
“Perhaps it would be better if I came on a night you weren’t inviting anyone else. One-on-one works best for me these days.”
“Perfect,” Emma said when Rhiannon relayed the conversation.
When he came over that week, they finished a bottle of wine before they began dinner. “I can’t help but think that if I’d done one thing differently, she would still be alive,” Ross said, finishing the last glass.
Rhiannon was silent. “No one has that much control,” she said finally.
When he asked, “Why did it happen?” it was Rhiannon’s turn to say, “I don’t think you can ask why. There’s no answer to that question. Jill taught me that.”
“But there are some questions you have to ask,” he said, tipsy now. He mumbled, “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror, Just keep going.” Later he told her that he was quoting Rilke. But at that moment, close to her on the blue velvet couch, he stopped talking, leaned over and kissed her. She had imagined this kiss, but she was still surprised by how stirred she felt. He kissed her again. Then he paused. “I can’t help but feel that Jill is with us.”
Rhiannon froze. Then she burst into tears. It was raining and she could hear the wind battering the windows.
“There is nothing like desire,” Ross said, sitting very still, “for making a person say exactly the opposite of what he means.”
Emma called the next morning. “How’d it go?”
All Rhiannon could say was, “Intense.” Then, “I think I’m a fill-in for Jill. He wanted to spend the night.”
“Jill died three months ago. I told him we would have to take things slowly. But I can see things won’t go slow. I didn’t have the heart to ask him to leave.”
Later that week Rhiannon and Emma had lunch together. When she started comparing Ross to Sébastien, Emma just listened. “I think I only saw what I wanted to see,” Rhiannon said. “When I want something badly, everything goes out of focus.”
“It’s great you realize that, Rhiannon. I know things have been difficult for you. It’s hard being the oldest kid in the family. It’s just…” Emma sighed, “I wish you didn’t always ignore so much.”
“Oh, please,” Rhiannon said, her eyes filling with tears. What did Emma expect of her? Couldn’t she be happy for her? Things were finally turning around.
At first, sleeping at Ross’s place felt like a luxury. But after a while the photos of Jill on the walls, and on coffee tables, and in the bedroom began to haunt her. When she slept over, she felt like the mistress, double-crossing a friend. She brought this up with Ross but he wasn’t ready to talk about it.
Surely the reason they had come together was to help each other. The only thing was, and this she didn’t mention to anyone but Emma, “He likes me to wear sexy red underwear.” She said this in a whisper, though no one was in her apartment but them.
“So? It must be fun to buy what he likes.”
“It was fun, at first. But the only way he can make love is when I’m wearing this underwear, and it has to be a very specific kind. I can’t share the details. It’s like I’m not enough. He needs something extra.”
Emma groaned. She wondered aloud if Rhiannon should cool things. “If he has fetishes now, it’s only going to get worse.”
Rhiannon shook her head. “We’ve both been through too much. We need each other,” she said. She worried Ross would be snatched away from her like Sébastien had been.
“I know you want marriage and a family. But do you think you know Ross well enough to…”
“Yes,” Rhiannon said. She said she’d had a few doubts about Sébastien but none about Ross.
“None?” Emma asked.
“What’s your point? I’m trying to follow advice Mom once gave me: ‘Be lovable, if you want to be loved.’ ”
One morning, when she was at Ross’s drinking her first coffee of the day Ross said, “So when we have kids, you won’t mind staying home?” You could have knocked her down she was so surprised. That was exactly what she wanted, to stay home, sleep, nurse her baby, listen to the radio, steer clear of ambition for a while but she would never have let on. Were they were actually going to marry then; that was that?
When he gave her an engagement ring, he quoted his favourite poet again, “We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.”
Later she would think it was an odd quote for the occasion.
When she showed her mother the ring they both got teary. “I wish your father were alive to give you away,” she said. Her father had been dead twenty years. Rhiannon supposed a wedding ceremony made everyone sentimental.
Her mother, a grade school teacher for thirty years, was keen to help with the preparations. She prided herself on her organizational skills.
“I don’t want people coming,” Ross said, “No room full of family and friends, just a simple ceremony in the apartment with a Justice of the Peace.”
His golden retriever Yurick came over then and gave her a quizzical look.
“He wonders if you’re disappointed, or if you’re having an existential moment,” Ross said. “But I’m the existential one, Yurick,” he told his dog, patting him. Then he spoke in a high voice, meant to be Yurick’s: “You have extra stentials? If you have extra, could I have some? Do they taste good?”
Rhiannon shook her head. He could be kind one minute and then, what was it exactly, subtly mocking? Like talking about letting go at the very moment he was putting a ring on her finger.
Before the wedding he gave Rhiannon his father’s wedding ring as well, a plain gold band. “This is the ring I’ll wear,” he said. “Hold on to it until we exchange vows.” Ross had lost his father when he was young as well, another reason she felt close to him. He said his father’s death hadn’t affected him much— but how could he not be traumatized by the loss of a father at a young age?
“We were never close,” he said. Yes, she thought, but one always hopes that closeness will come.
“Look,” Emma said, “I don’t expect Ross to be fascinated by the work I do. You’re the one he’s marrying. But he always looks bored when I talk about the hospital. He’s a doctor, you’d think he’d be vaguely interested.”
“I don’t think Ross knows how to show he’s interested,” Rhiannon said. When she used to spend time with Jill and Ross, she imagined how close they were; they seemed to read each other’s minds. Now that she was the one with Ross, she still felt like an outsider. She wasn’t sure why this was, but she hoped that time itself would bring them closer. “No one has everything they want,” she said.
“So, what am I missing?” Emma asked. “Or rather, what do think you’re missing?” But Rhiannon shrugged off the question. Emma wanted to say, You are stunned, girl. But she didn’t have the courage. Or any answers. Besides, who was she to make such a pronouncement? Wasn’t everyone a bit stunned? she wondered.
On their honeymoon, it was easy to overlook difficulties. He bought her red underwear in the airport in London, which she wore their first night in Prague. She guessed that was the evening their daughter was conceived. Nine months later, when her daughter was born, she did not have the energy to do much beside take care of the baby.
When she nursed her daughter, she’d think about her honeymoon. How they walked the narrow cobbled streets in Prague. When they were near Wenceslas Square Ross had pointed out Jindrišská street where Rilke was born. He’d asked her if she knew Tsvetaeva’s work, a poet who travelled to Prague when she was young and corresponded with Rilke. He recited lines from one of Tsvetaeva’s poems: It’s all the same to me, where I’m utterly lonely. …It’s all the same to me in what language I’m misunderstood.” When they walked to the Jewish graveyard he stopped and reached for her hand and recited another line from Tsvetaeva: Soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we, who never let each other sleep above it.
He didn’t tell her how Tsvetaeva died, or the grim reality of the poet’s marriage. Rhiannon found that out later, when she took out a biography from the library back home. But in Prague, it was all lovely, the conversations about poetry, the walks along the winding streets, the large meals with wine and beer, the photographs they bought from the vendors when they crossed the bridge to the castle. When they came home Ross’s busy schedule resumed.
Now he seemed to spend all his time at work. Even on weekends, he went to his office. Rhiannon hoped she was happy and didn’t realize it.
“Isn’t she gorgeous,” her mother said when she came to visit. Mrs. Beckworth lifted the baby in the air and kissed her. “Sabrina, Sabrina, my darling,” she cooed. “You named her after Sébastien, I see.”
“I didn’t name her after Sébastien,” Rhiannon said, surprised. “When I suggested Sabrina, Ross agreed. His aunt’s name is Sabrina.” Later she thought that perhaps unconsciously she had chosen the name because of Sébastien.
A few weeks later, Emma called. “Mom says she feels like she’s intruding whenever she calls. I do too. What’s going on?”
“I need a lot of rest. Maybe younger women don’t get so tired when they’re nursing, but I’m exhausted.” She didn’t want to share the mantra in her head, “Bad choices, bad judgment, mistakes made with boyfriends.” Ross was hardly ever home, and she felt like she and the baby were on their own. She didn’t really blame Ross. He was working hard to support them. Instead, she fumed at her sister and mother for pressuring her to see them. These days, like a bull seeing red, a low-current anger ran through her. She was infuriated at Ross’s colleagues for not shouldering more of the work. She felt best alone, sleeping when the baby slept.
It was months before she felt rested enough to go out. Ross drove her to her mother’s but he stayed in the car and let her enter the house on her own with Sabrina. He drove away letting Rhiannon explain he’d be back in a few hours.
“He has to see a patient,” she told her mother and sister. She’d wrapped her daughter in the yellow and pink baby quilt her mother had made. In the living room, sitting by the fire, her mother and Emma took turns holding the baby and admiring her.
Lately she imagined what her life would be like if Sébastien hadn’t died. Sébastien loved children. Ross did too, and she was sure that when Sabrina was a little older, he would spend more time with her. She worried too that she was so tired from taking care of the baby, she didn`t have much left over for her husband.
Once she asked him if he had what he wanted, if he was happy.
“No,” he said.
His answer felt like a stab. But she didn’t pursue it. What did he want, if not a healthy child and a wife who loved him? She couldn’t bring herself to ask.
It took her completely by surprise when Ross left her. Their daughter was not yet a year old. It was only after he’d gone that she remembered a conversation she’d once had with Jill. “I’d like to have a child,” Jill told her. “But Ross needs so much attention, I think he’d be jealous of a baby.” Why was she only remembering this now? Had Ross only thought he wanted a child? Perhaps the reality proved too onerous.
He’d been away so much, her life wasn’t so different when he officially moved out. It wasn’t sadness or jealousy or desire to win him back that burned within her. What she felt, most strongly, was shame. Weeks after he’d left, she still couldn`t bring herself to tell anyone.
When Emma came by unannounced, Rhiannon, walking back and forth trying to settle the baby, finally blurted out, “Ross left.” Why keep up the charade any longer?
At last Sabrina stopped fussing and Rhiannon put her down on the rug with her stuffed animals and blocks.
“He fell in love with someone at work. He moved in with her.” No use trying to keep this a secret. She hadn’t asked Ross if he’d been seeing this woman when she was pregnant. She didn’t want to know.
Emma shook her head.
“Doesn’t there come a time when a person has been through so much grief, as Ross has, he simply can’t harm anyone anymore?” Rhiannon asked.
“I guess not,” Emma said.
“You’d think grief would make him a little more aware. If not grief, what?” Rhiannon asked, her voice shaky. “I mean, you’d think it would make me more aware,” she said, as if surprising herself. She was looking at the baby who was taking a large coloured cup and trying to put it in a smaller one. The baby would nap soon. Then she would rest.
Read Carole’s interview about “Red,” and You’re Stunned, Girl, her story collection in progress