Shanthi Sekaran: Aubade
Catherine Earnshaw leaves her lover at dawn
THE THING IS, the thing is,
I never do leave. How modern that would make me! How spry,
to slip away while you lie
Drowning in sleep, your mouth open, pulling great gusts of air from the night.
How cunning I would be to sneak away and die.
But the thing is, Heathcliff, the thing is, the last time I left, I stopped hearing from you.
What happened? Not a single letter, or telegram or telegraph or phone call or email or voicemail or IM or SMS or BBM or tweet. Not a peep for 226 years.
And then I saw you on Facebook. We had nine mutual friends.
So now I decide never to leave you again. I lie in bed and look at you and how bloodless you are in the half-light. I wonder if staring at you will wake you up, and what could happen then, and if I should eat an apple to freshen my breath, from a bowl at the bedside, the way the French do. And I wonder if the French really do keep bowls of apples by their beds, or if that’s just a myth about the French, of which there are so many, like the myth that French women eat cheese.
And I wonder if you will wake and be glad to see me and pull me to you or if you’ll roll out of bed and say you have to be somewhere, and stand up too quickly and hold your head and groan and say how horrible it is to be awake and how bad you feel, as if last night were a poorly measured indulgence that cowers in the judgment of day.
I wonder if I should shower.
And then, from the floor above, a toilet flushes and you wake up.
You blink at me, surprised.
And we go to breakfast, Heathcliff, you and I, and I, like a hungry dog, wolf down home fries because something about the oil and crunch and hot-hot Tabasco sauce cleanses me from the inside.
And it’s clear to me now that we haven’t seen each other for years and years, for hundreds of years, because at some point in that period, you stopped eating wheat. You order gluten-free waffles with sausages and eggs. I wonder if this is why you’ve gone so gaunt, or if it’s from the years and years, the hundreds of years, of wishing to be with me.
The people around us eat pancakes and check their phones and take pictures of their food. No one seems to know what we’ve been through—the choking separation, the wondering and wandering. I was a waif for 226 years, Heathcliff, and even in the ’90s, when being a waif was fashionable, I walked this earth like a person without lungs.
And you haven’t changed, my love. You don’t thank the waitress when she fills your coffee cup. I reach with my fork for a bite of your wheatless waffle and you growl and shove my hand away and fence your plate in with your elbow. And then you look up, like a sorry old wolf, and you saw off a portion of the waffle and slide it onto my plate.
I would give you anything, Cathy, you say. I would rip the heart from my chest and give it you, if it weren’t already yours. And then you try to spoon some eggs onto my plate, and your fruit salad and sausages, and the entire dripping waffle and I have to stop you and say Enough. I have enough, now.
Your waffle falls apart, midair, and a chunk of it sogs on the table between us.
Settle down, I say. We’re together now, right? We’re here. So what have you been up to, Heathcliff?
You’d think I’d have asked this question yesterday, when we met at the Vietnamese tapas bar, but it seemed the goal yesterday was to pick up where we’d left off, and where we’d left off was me weeping and dying and giving birth, and Heathcliff commanding me to haunt him, to torment him and be his ghost forever, but to never, never leave him alone in the world. And my response? I blamed him. I told him he’d been the one to kill me. He left me after I’d left him.
But I see now, Heathcliff, that it’s what you had to do. And I forgive you, Heathcliff, for blighting me with your tears, and taking those last moments we’d had together to damn me, to curse me with the misery that dug through you. There’s not much time to talk when you have 226 years of angry sex to catch up on.
And that’s where we picked up, in my studio in the Mission. I had changed my sheets that day and bought a new bedspread, and I’d cleaned the goldfish bowl and bought one of those air fresheners with the wood sticks in a glass jar—what are those, Heathcliff? And you tasted of the salty duck, and you tasted of mint and rum, and we were healthy for once. Healthy and single and warm and we were us, left to ourselves, with no one watching but the goldfish in his bowl, destined by biology to forget what he was seeing. We were as we’d been in those first days, our early days together, when we’d roll in the churning grasses like two kittens learning to fight.
So what have you been up to, I say.
I’m between jobs. I did the venture capitalist thing for a while, made a nice stash from that, and now I’m trying to figure out what it is I really want to do, you know? I’m thinking of teaching kindergarten. I want to—I want to find my passion.
I thought I was your passion, I say, then laugh a little to sound like I was joking.
You slide your eyes from your plate to your coffee. I don’t know, Cathy. We sleepwalk through life, you know? We do what they tell us to do, we go to college, we tick the boxes, and the next thing you know, you’re 250 years old and you don’t know how you got there. You know what I mean?
I mean, one night I’m staring out an open window, it’s raining and the water’s soaking my bedclothes and dripping down my face, and I fall asleep and then I wake up and bam!—here I am. Heathcliff Earnshaw, MBA. How the hell did that happen?
I shake my head. I have no more of an answer than he does. One day I’m 19, married, in labor, running across the moors in a snowstorm and filling my lungs with the ill winds of the Yorkshire winter. And the next, I’m a social worker, and single, and stalking people on Facebook, hoping their security settings aren’t too high so I canlook through their photos without friending them.
I COUGH, AND my chest tears open. There are tendons there, and bone, and throbbing just below the surface is one solitary, chicken-skinned pulsing heart, drenched in blood. I pull my cardigan closed, I know you’ve seen me naked but I wish you hadn’t seen that.
And you pretend you didn’t.
You look away, and cough, but your body hangs together. You’ve always been stronger than me. And you ask me if I’m going to eat the sausage.
I shake my head. I don’t eat meat.
You bang your fist on the table and laugh. You’re a vegetarian! That’s ripe. Are you in the Green Party, too?
I’m a Democrat, I say.
You stop chewing.
You’re a what?
I’m a Democrat. I vote for Democrats.
You lean back, sigh, and scratch the back of your head. You gaze out the window.
So you voted for Obama, you say.
I’m a social worker, Heathcliff. I try to make people’s lives better. Of course I voted for Obama.
And you’re voting for him again?
Wouldn’t you? I ask.
You scoff and take a swig of coffee. And in your eyes I see the steady blade of certainty that used to frighten me so.
I’m a realist.
What’s that supposed to mean?
Life’s no fairy tale, Cathy, and you have always fallen for the fairy tale ending. You wipe your mouth and set the napkin down. You haven’t changed, have you?
And then you proceed to say things about taxes and the poor and oil and evolution and the president that slam into my skull like a prow. Remember the days, Heathcliff, when a tea party was a happy thing? I want to tell you that you’re killing me all over again. I want to tear your tongue from your mouth and eat it with hot sauce.
But I don’t. I say nothing. How often do I see you? It’s been 226 years. When will I see you again? I want to argue, but I feel like that would break us. When you see someone rarely enough, it’s hard to tell him that the words spilling from his mouth are the words of a shortsighted sociopath. Now silence is the only way, because saying what we think will obliterate the fine mesh of love we’ve kept whole through the years.
And maybe that’s the way things work these days. Maybe nothing’s quite worth the fight, and nothing changes anyway, so we curl back into ourselves, where it’s warm and dry, where there’s no one watching but the goldfish. Outside, a fire truck passes and bleeps. I notice there’s syrup on my sleeve.
You spear the sausage on my plate and swipe it whole into your mouth. You sit sedated, chewing, and watch me through lids at half-mast, breathing heavily through your nostrils. Your eyes fall to my open chest, where blood begins to seep through my sweater. That’s my heart. Yours is shut safely in your chest. You rest your eyes there, on the nauseating, bloody throb. You stare at it and chew. You blink once, and twice, then you give up. You look out the window.
And that’s when I ask myself: Is this the man who dug my corpse from the ground just so he could hold me again?
Shanthi Sekaran is the author of The Prayer Room (2009) and a member of the Portuguese Artists Colony and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She teaches writing at California College of the Arts, lives in Berkeley, and is working on her second novel.