His hair was long and oily, curling slightly upwards at their ends in an open rebellion against gravity which mirrored the expression that had been etched into his face over years of defying what others condoned as common sense. His choice in clothing indicated a preference of holding onto comfortable, well-worn items: his faded olive green jacket which showed its age through its broken zipper, tattered velcro wrist-straps, and easily-missed burn-holes from back when he still smoked. If you held it against your nose and breathed deeply, you could still smell the smoke from all those years ago. It illustrated the side of him I liked the most: that endearing loyalty to things which had endured the good-and-bad with him.
His wristwatch might have been the only item that glimmered a hint of the richness beneath the rags: but even that, on closer examination, had scratched up steel-straps where his hands had rested on desks as he’d worked long hours toiling over computer programs, or those rarer occasion when he’d chanced to bump into something through one of his deft, practiced movements.
Usually, he bumped into me. Then he’d come back and caress the spot, like that was going to make it any better; he did it with a sensuality that made it pleasant, forgivable, and altogether familiar.
Much of his behavior conveyed an open disregard for aspects that might have bothered other people: how he went out with me to fashionable places in those same faded clothes with a two-day shadow upon his jaw and chin which he would stroke almost proudly, how he enunciated the grooves his glasses had left upon the bridge of his nose by taking his spectacles off only to massage those very darkened spots.
It was only when you looked into his razor eyes that you could see how effortlessly he could remedy any of these visual artifacts, if only he found a compelling reason to do so. I gave him none for I had accepted him as he was, and as if I was his only reason for doing anything, he thus did nothing.
We didn’t talk much. He didn’t coddle our relationship by decorating it with words or telling me how he felt each day or what work had been like. There was the occasional outburst when he just had to rant on about something completely technical, and I could only help by interrupting him with trivial questions that he always answered with the greatest attention — so much so, he’d often completely forget what he’d been rambling on about in the first place. Then I’d have to gently remind him with a sparkle of humor. I loved moments like that, moments of knowing I was the only one privy to this aspect of him.
I held a keen awareness of the fact that he relied on me the same way he relied on his pencils to draw those sketches that bordered on artistic; relied on his dusty mechanical keyboard to write stories that fell short of being literary; and relied upon his aged electric guitar and tube-amp to produce those sounds that seemed to thrill him as being musical where others would have criticized it as meaningless noise.
In just the same way, he relied completely and wholeheartedly upon me to be his anchor to humanity, else he would certainly have careened away in any breeze that happened by.
It was in this unspoken reliance and attachment to me that our love existed: he loved me, and I loved that he needed me. His dependence was so juvenile, he would go so far as to regularly point out jewelry and clothing on other women and then say, “darling, wouldn’t that look so much more stunning on you?”
In similarly naive manner, he occasioned to fashion love poems he’d leave hanging on the refrigerator, saying such things as “thine beauty hath chained my soul; without thee I shalt never be whole… be back late” to indicate another restless night of wandering the streets, struggling to draw upon that tenuous river of inspiration that flowed within him.
I asked him once, “what compels you to write, to draw, to make music when no one cares to read, to look, to listen?”
He smiled in a mysterious way. “You do.”
I blushed. It was true; I couldn’t help but listen and look and read and see that all his art, every last bit of it, even those scribbles and vague sketches: all of it was devoted entirely to me.
“I sometimes wish I had more to give to the world… but immortalizing my love for you is all I have to gift.”
I both loved and hated that he said that. I adored that he could not help but express his love for me in so many ways. I hated that he belittled it as though it were something so small when to me, it was more valuable than the world itself.
Can’t you see your own worth as a man?
I knew he was blind to that. No one had ever told it to him — not even me, for I secretly feared if he understood the true magnitude of who he was, he wouldn’t care to have anything to do with me, not when there were so many more selfless and beautiful women out there.
Selfishly, I despised myself for hoarding his magnanimity. In a certain word, I’d always believed that it was the woman who makes the man. Our marriage had cemented that belief, but in so doing, I began to feel an inexplicable burden of guilt for transforming an otherwise talented and ambitious human into one not so different from myself: comfortable with the status quo, content with a life of quiet insignificance. I wondered what more he could have become that he chose not to. His passion for me was what I loved; it was also what I hated most.
Often, he would come home and I’d be occupied in the kitchen, and he’d constrict his arms in a manner tighter than a hug, so I couldn’t move or escape if I wanted to. I rarely felt anything when he did things like that, at best I found it a nuisance and loathed it.
Except that it was the loving sort of loathing one gets after hating something for so long, one can’t help but feel comfortable with the familiarity and fall in love with it.
Of course it was more than that — some deeper part of me felt satisfied in an inexplicable way, because it was his gesture to communicate: “I’ve been thinking about you dear, and all the things you have to deal with when it comes to me, everything you take care of without my asking…”
I knew that was how he meant it because as soon as I’d stilled myself and stopped what I was doing, rolling my eyes with a faux pas frown he was forced to notice, he’d caress my fingers, seeking out callouses and imperfections, rubbing and enunciating them. Then he’d begin kissing my cheeks, particularly the beauty marks and all the speckled imperfections that he would often touch in gentle reminder. “Perfection in imperfection,” he’d wink.
Those were his ways of saying “I love every inch and last detail, the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly.”
He was so dependent. So very dependent. And I so very much needed that dependence, I almost despised myself for my addiction to it. I was his opiate and he was my liquor.
Sometimes, out of boredom, I’d say something arbitrary like, “I hear there are some beautiful beaches in Bali.”
Then ten months later, out of nowhere, he’d rouse me one morning with his lips against my neck, his arms in an uncomfortable embrace. We’d get up for breakfast, and he’d present me with an already-packed bag, and we’d be off. Except we wouldn’t go to Bali, we’d end up somewhere quite the opposite, like Finland. I would feign boredom and irritation as he’d incessantly take snapshots of me with his semi-professional camera and small set of lenses. When I would try and reverse the situation to capture a snap of him, he’d playfully dodge, leaving it blurred, or with one of his sardonic expressions that yelped “no you don’t!”
“Look, photos are to remember things that are important to you. You’re important to me. Me? I couldn’t give a hoot about myself. Why would I want to remember myself?”
“You idiot,” I’d scold him, shaking my head. “Do you even realize how juvenile your logic is? You sound like a three-year old. I’m not taking photos for you to remember yourself, I’m taking photos for me.”
He’d shrug with the most worthless comeback. “Unlike men, I’m pretty sure women have perfect memories and remember everything. I mean, how else do they remember the most useless things to hang over their husband’s heads?”
“Like knowing all the places you forget your keys? Remembering what foods you like?”
“Buttered toast is not my favorite food.” Then, without giving me time to riposte, he’d steamroll: “To my point, men need photos to remember that things are even important and worth remembering. For women, photos are a luxury, because they already remember the things that are important.”
I actually couldn’t argue with him about that. In this way, he amassed a myriad photos of me, while I had almost none of him. I had more photos of him as a child and a young man than after our marriage. Actually, I had more photos of us during our honeymoon than in the ten years following.
When we’d return to the airport for our flight back, he’d fake a puzzled expression and say, “strange, I seem to have booked the wrong tickets…” and then we’d end up in Bali, just like I’d wanted, me in a bikini and strangely self-conscious of the slight weight I’d gained with age while he would squeeze just those aspects of me in a way that stated, “I love that, too.”
He didn’t just do this sort of thing once. This was a stunt he repeated on a semi-annual basis. In the same way that I hated how tightly he would hug me at times, ever vacation had to start with going somewhere that I definitely did not want to go.
As part of the almost cat-and-mouse nature of our marriage, there were certain things he hid from me. He was secretive in logic-defying ways, freely acting as though he were having an affair with another woman, purposefully locking files away in encrypted drives with cryptic names that suggested it was someone other than me. I knew that possibly couldn’t be true and found the way that he toyed with my insecurities and paranoia frustrating. Some days he would just… not come home until one AM, claiming he was in the office writing or working on a personal project. (To wit, I had actually installed a miniature GPS tracker in the shoes he always wore, so I knew he wasn’t lying)
He would drive me mad with such behaviour, which would invariably lead me to playing my trump card to squeeze the truth out of him by seducing him in the ways I only knew how.
Even then, his mockery seemingly never ceased. It was only through the years that I began to realize this was his strategy for openly addressing the unspoken fear of infidelity that is on everyone’s minds, but rarely discussed in a healthy way. As someone who had been in more than a few such relationships, I began to appreciate the thought behind his actions, even if I detested the actions themselves.
In spite of it all, there was one thing he never yielded on: he would never let me actually view the contents of his caches of supposedly illicit media. The thought of not knowing burned at me for a bit, but then I realized it was okay to let him have a few secrets. So long as I knew that there were secrets and how to get to them, that is. It was the secret secrets, the unknown secrets, that were truly frightening.
When I got the call about the accident, the first thing, the only thing, that I could think was: “Now I’ll never know.”
Later, I would think of myself as a terrible human being for thinking something so trivial in the light of such tragedy. It was my counselor who gently described to how our minds, not knowing how to deal with trauma, often thinks of the stupidest things as a means to cope, to distract from the true immensity of what has transpired.
After the funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to go back to our home, to see anything that reminded me of him. I went to stay with my parents during that time, embroiled in a state of constant shell-shock and symptomatic PTSD. The days following the funeral seemed like years. I spent those years laying in bed, tormented by my memories of him, by things I expected to be there. His being gone was like a missing appendage, more valuable than a leg or an arm. Some unspeakable part of me had gone missing, and my mind echoed ghost pains every waking moment.
Sleep was my makeshift cure for my permanent affliction. I did everything I could to fend off consciousness: the constant pain of being awake was unbearable; it would ebb and flow between just barely tolerable to mind-warping.
When I was awake, I found food and drink wholly unappealing and unsatisfying. It was as if my ability to enjoy anything had been almost utterly and completely evaporated. I felt desiccated, a husk whose juices had been dried out, leaving just enough to form a walking corpse, a zombie. My mind lost touch with reality for nary a month, until one morning, my mother forced me out to meet with his lawyer and review his will.
As my mind glazed past the details of the assets I’d inherited, I could only think how little any of it was worth, how thoroughly hurtful any reminder of him would be, and how everything I got felt like blood money. In too many ways to count, I felt like what I was receiving was a curse, things that would torment me which I could not bring myself to be rid of.
Then, at the end of our meeting, something unexpected happened. His lawyer gave me a letter of personal instructions. I didn’t want to read it then, but I was instructed that, as the executor of his will, I had a legal obligation to review his personal instructions in the presence of a notary, so the transfer of assets could proceed.
My heart ached and I could hardly breathe for the stone in my throat. In the end, my mother opened the letter for me, gently wiping the tears occluding my vision so I could see what was written.
It was a handwritten note, his slanted scrawling slashing through my heart. I suddenly felt glad that I didn’t have that many pictures of him, and then I felt horrible for thinking that.
See you on the other side. Don’t let me be the weight pulling you down.
Bet you’re glad you don’t have so many pictures of me now, eh?
I’d let the lawyer and notary review the note, then I crumpled it in illogical fury, keen to toss it and just barely able to restrain myself into pocketing it. I was angry at him, his tone, the way he seemed to know what would go through my mind before I did. Most of all, I was livid at him for leaving me here alone, with so little, with so few words. This is all he could find to say, after all we’d been through? Even in death, he continued to mock me sardonically, playing those same games as if he were still around.
It was that anger that jolted me out of what I was going through.
In the days following, as I began to throw myself back into life with a frightening aggression, it began to dawn on me just how much one person has to love another to know the right words to say for something like this. How much a single person had to have thought about another person and what they would go through. Somehow, in the way I loved and hated, he’d left me feeling inadequate yet complete.
His nonchalance, machismo, and gentle affection were so tersely conveyed in those simple words — See you on the other side. It was a phrase he’d used often enough, before work, before going to sleep, before any time we parted. In all of these circumstances, it was obvious that we would see each other again. But now that it no longer was, now that such certainty had been buried in permanence, he chose the words he would have said as if… nothing had happened at all. It was that stupidly reassuring and endearing absoluteness, that idiotically absolute faith, that comforted me the most. It made life feel… like I would be without him but a single day.
When I finally got back to my apartment after spending another month with my parents, I saw his computer and something in my mind clicked. I remembered the note. I hadn’t thought about what the random string was, but in that moment, I knew.
I booted his machine up and logged in. I began to decrypt his folders. I began to gain some semblance of what he was always up to at his office.
I had always assumed he showed me all his artistic creations. I began to realize I was grossly mistaken. There were photographs of me, often when I wasn’t looking, capturing some aspect of my expression in the most natural ways. Notes about how my face looked in different light, poetry about my hair and hands, countless practice recordings of his songs that illustrated the countless hours and attempts he poured into them, and… perhaps what struck me most of all were the things he’d never shown me. Short stories he’d written about our relationship. Digital paintings of me based on photographs. There were even complete fictional novels centered around stories I’d told him from my childhood, or discussions we’d had.
Everything he had ever shown me and said to me was hardly the tip of the iceberg to the vast volumes of art he’d made about me. In his works, I began to see how much more to him there really was, how little I really knew about the person I’d married. I knew his behaviorisms, how to tell when he was lying, how to manipulate him to do what I wanted. I knew his likes and dislikes, his birthday; his past, his hopes, his dreams. I knew his tendencies, his moral strengths and shortcomings, his philosophies. I knew his focus, his almost cold-hearted look when thought through problems. These were things I had always equated to knowing a person, but they suddenly seemed inconsequentially superficial. All the nuanced complexity and shades of his soul, the unspoken and incommunicable aspects that made up his depth as a human… the core of his being, that manifested as the person I knew: this was something I had no idea about.
I began to realize how much of him was still here.