He was gorgeous, looking down at me. Very handsome. Both eyes red-rimmed but different: the left, all ecru milkiness, and the right, a swollen lump of sclera protruding like the bud of a new flower. Though his eyes were open, I knew he was sleeping, knew he could not see me. I rolled onto my side and heard that low squeak of cheap sheets against the plastic bed covering. Hospital air is loud enough that I wasn’t afraid of waking him. The bed was squat and I could look up into his face as he sat. The eyes that see. The eyes that cannot see. He would wake when I touched him—and I would touch him—but at that moment I had the oddest thought: why hadn’t we had children? The thought shook me, and I remembered the bathroom floor and how I’d been lying on it when I left my body. That bathroom we had talked often of remodeling. Then the idea washed over me and away. And I was looking at him again. Looking at him always. I felt the pinch of the IV in my wrist. I touched him. He blinked awake, wordlessly touched me, happy, I think, that I was alive.
He took me home the following afternoon. I had only a conversation with the hospital’s attending psychiatrist and a call from my own—that one was hard—and I was free to go. My husband was very careful with me. He drove slowly on the highway and asked me questions that he knew I liked.
“Why is the city messing with the roads again?”
“Think that cupcake shop will make it?”
“Was I supposed to marinate the fish before baking it?”
He pinched the webby flesh between my index finger and thumb, something he knew I loved. I was lucky really to have a man who remembered my pinches more than my pratfalls. I think I might’ve reminded myself to remember that I was lucky. I am lucky, my brain might’ve told my brain. But it’s so hard to remember everything. It’s my fault, I know. I take full responsibility.
At the house, things were as I’d left them, more or less. The carpet needed shampooing. It was only two years old, but we were somewhat big-picture people, people who couldn’t care for carpet. He had grown up with hardwoods, and I’d grown up with dingy carpets. Is that why we overlooked this chore? The kitchen was clean. The bedroom was neat. The bed wasn’t made, I noticed that. And he loved to make the bed. I once teased him about it. The man would make the bed at a hotel on the morning he was checking out. Not really. That was a joke I told, and everyone laughed and later we argued because he said the joke was part of a flirtation I was having with Walter, a friend of ours. I denied it. Me and Walter? Really? I told him he was crazy. I am not afraid of words. No matter what happens, I will always use the words crazy, psycho, idiot, and bitch. That’s how it is with me. Anyway, Walter is a friend. He’s tall and muscular, black—the type of guy lots of women go for. And I’m the type of woman the Walters of the world go for, because of my marriage to a marginally published poet, or despite it. It’s an experiment of the male ego. Anyway, we quarreled and then were mad and then I can’t remember what, except we had made up somehow and now we were here. I looked into the bathroom. Didn’t step in, just looked. And didn’t feel anything for the tile. Nothing whatsoever.
An eventless period followed that one. We celebrated anniversaries—three, though we’ve been married for seven years in all—and even some successes with my husband’s book of poetry coming out and my story appearing in a sometimes-read literary journal. All these things gave me hope. Hope that I would change.
We’d met in college, and I was in love with him for a long time before I knew much about him. Dwight. The whole dorm seemed to know him, and everyone called him D, which was what I called him until the night he walked me home from a basketball game. A bespectacled city boy, nondescript in his whiteness: tallish, brown-haired, brown-eyed.
After that night, I had the exhausting, unquenchable desire to be the best he ever had until his something-better came along. It was oppressive in a way. I couldn’t call without something to say, couldn’t see him without something to do, and the physical—don’t even ask me about that. I had ten pounds to lose and no real hope, no chance to lose it. How we overcame that was really a blur, or should I just say I didn’t see it? I remember it. My eyes were closed and we were huddled together in the part of his bed that met the wall. We were both impatient, but I was still scared of disappointing him, so he told me that I could keep my eyes closed and nod if I wanted him to take off another article of clothing. I was quickly nude. And so was he, I could feel. And we were doing something else. Something that felt very familiar and foreign, too, and nice.
I was always writing stories without characters or characters without faces. I don’t know. The stories have been friends to me. They have betrayed me, but they have never been my enemy.
I once knew a girl who wrote a story in middle school that got her into trouble. The people who believed the story was true considered the girl “in trouble.” The people who believed the story was fiction considered the girl “troubled.” The girl thought that everyone was saying the same thing. Trouble. In trouble. It’s all a matter of narration.
Our marriage? We lived, we lived, we lived. Don’t ask me about that. I cannot say how happy he made me. Yes, happy, another word I’m not afraid of. I know happiness is a condition some people find themselves in. I’m not afraid to say that I find myself out of it, though I’ve been ashamed when others have tried to persuade me it was something I could change like that. I was his wife, and he was my husband. The former is where the problem comes in. You think something is going to convince you of happiness? Get you on the team? There is no such thing as that. If you rub fish oil and take maca root, commit to a hobby, read Bible verses about Christ at Calvary and make new friends and exercise so that endorphins are synthesized in the appropriate way and avoid the past and the future that is beyond an hour from now—if you do all of these things, you may still not want to continue the trip you’re on. I’m only saying this because I did, and I don’t.
I was fascinated by Dwight as a creature. He was boyish—more trusting and effusive than I’d been as a child. So ready to be loved. I found after being around him for several months that I could not stop thinking about him. We had even broken up due to some carelessness on his part and I could not stop thinking about him. I could stop eating, stop going out with friends, but I could not stop thinking about him. When we had been together, I could stop thinking about him. It was the notion that I had an indefinite amount of time to wonder at him that made me so calm.
He had a string of women who were committed to him, some who shared all his interests. Some were very nice to me, hoping their cordiality would confine me to his past. One of the girls was really beautiful with a Brooke Shields mane and an exotic heritage from the Far East of Russia. It was after I saw the stroke of his hand against her shoulder that I began working out. Those last ten pounds. I don’t know what I thought working out would accomplish. It wouldn’t make me a Tatar-Mongolian cocktail, but I saw the touch at a friend’s party and I wanted to be better somehow. Worthy of it again.
I dated a string of Walters—you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m black—arrogant and too handsome and mean for me to hold on to. One would set me reeling and I’d end up with a version of him. Then Dwight and I were back together. It felt as though we’d never parted.
Will you say I never loved him? Because I didn’t say goodbye?
The stories didn’t come as easily as they had in the past. Not in the messy hurried way, the way life came. When my pen stopped, there was nothing to focus on but myself: my large, open hands and how little they could do. There are so many ugly things to look at and when you slow down, they come into focus.
We were in our last apartment. So beautiful. Perfect. I wanted to hear the rain on the pavement outside. That is all I’ve ever wanted. Our apartment was wonderful. No carpet this time—it had hardwood floors, so our sounds echoed in the interim months between shedding old furniture and buying more. You knew you were alive in an apartment like that. It was constantly telling you so. I started a novel. Wrote 150 pages and it wouldn’t come together.
And what had come before? Those stories had nothing to do with me. They climbed up on my back. Emerged. Used me. Just friends. How could he understand? My husband. He couldn’t give me children. Poems are like friends, stories are like children. But really, I couldn’t have children. Not the way I was. What would I have done with them? Book people were the only ones who knew how I felt, who felt how I felt. A friend came to me, she told me, “What you want is to nurture.” How does one answer that? I said, “Well, one day. At least I have my stories.” Real mature-like. Real I-know-what-I’m-doing-like.
I had my stories, but they didn’t have me. No one held me when I cried. I wouldn’t let Dwight do it anymore. I didn’t like what it was doing to him. I wanted to keep him from me, to preserve his innocence so that I could see it again, so that I could use it, so that it could make me smile. And for a while I felt I was using it. Like I was feeding off an infinite source of water, the kind of reserves I’d never seen before and would never see again. Isn’t that enough to make anyone happy? I felt so strong. Then I forgot to remind myself to feel strong. Then I remembered the reminder but couldn’t remember being that strong being, or how I had gotten to where I was now. And I was angry. Enraged. I knew that where I was was familiar; I had the old memories, and strength seemed a delusion some people traffic in. I looked in the mirror and saw myself. She was ugly but I knew her name.
Depression is the absence of things. An inverted Eden. There is no longing. It’s like a drug, except free and wretched and constant, not subject to the oscillation of an outside element. The only chemical is inside of you, your brain, if you believe that—but I don’t. The world becomes smaller until there is less in it, less that matters and eventually less to say goodbye to.
Depression is an aesthetic. Even if you believe in God, he cannot rule it. He is impotent and unaffecting. It’s better if you do not believe, best if you don’t feel neglected. That is where I am—just past the arc of anger, one of the emotions that depression does not supersede.
I’ll leave this behind. This piece of things. When you read it, know that I folded it into the pages of a harlequin novel and dropped it at a book drive. I thought it was something I had to do. I kept seeing the word “goodbye” everywhere and knew, despite all, that this was not the corpse to leave for a husband.
People want to know why. People want an answer they can understand from a candidate they can vote for.
Here: I was molested as a child.
Here: I fought in Vietnam.
Here: I dropped acid in seventh grade and haven’t been the same since.
Here: I’m off to meet my maker.
Here: Gone fishin’.
There is no answer. There is no one moment of one day. There is only the sum total of things.
There was one year when Dwight planned a trip for Valentine’s Day. It was a trip “on our budget,” which meant we weren’t going anywhere the car couldn’t take us. He woke early, when he thought I was asleep, though I was awake and had been for some time. I could hear him moving around the kitchen, could hear him drop a fork and then kick it across the tile. Finally, I got up and showered. He was waiting with a cooler by the time I had dressed. He drove us out of the city and would not tell me where we were going, though I asked three times. Really I didn’t care where we were going. I liked that he was happy, and I knew the surprise was satisfying to him. Finally, we arrived in the town center of a bedroom suburb. It was the type of place we made fun of. When he saw my face, he laughed and said, “I know, I know, don’t worry,” and leaned over to kiss my neck. He had brought me to a park, one with a sign that named the Confederate soldiers who’d died there and a pond that was too large for the park. There were even geese.
We sat and ate. I forgot it was Valentine’s Day eventually, forgot about the surprise. We talked about mutual friends, about couples’ activities we might try. He began to talk about beers and microbreweries. It was not a new conversation, and usually I could keep up because I knew enough about the subject and because I knew what it took to be a good companion to Dwight. But that day, I watched the park: the transient tribe of teens laughing or mocking or commiserating, thinking the confusion of their years might end soon. I couldn’t keep track of the things I thought while Dwight talked. It was all passing over me, but in a way that was pleasant, a way that felt warm and necessary and justified, like the heavy feeling that follows a meal.
Eventually my mind came back to Dwight and I could hear him again. Not just pick out the words like notes in a song but hear the want in his voice. He was on a new tangent I hadn’t heard before. He was saying that making something people consume was real creativity, that American hops were a dynamic innovation. I said, “Well, we don’t make any money, so it’s never too late to do something else.” He looked away from me when I said this. He gazed out across the lawn, but I knew he was looking at nothing in particular, and that was maybe how I had looked while he was talking. “Yeah, that’s one way to look at it,” he said, without turning back to me. I thought he was upset. He began clearing the picnic things. I took a plastic grocery bag and packed away the trash, but when we were done, he said, “Let’s leave it for a second. No one’s here. There’s something you should see.” So we walked through the park, away from the direction we came, away from the car, across the strip mall parking lot and to the garden end of a hardware store.
“There,” he said.
I looked around, first seeing only potted plants, oversized aloe vera, and then I saw the statue. A faux-bronze statue of a man with water spraying from a hole in his trousers.
“Remember?” he asked. “Kafka?”
And for a second, I couldn’t remember, but then I did. The summer we traveled in Europe, we devoted an entire day to the Kafka Museum in Prague. In the square outside, there was a statue of two nude men holding their penises as water spilled from them into the small pond they stood in. The day we visited, two brothers leaned over to catch the water in their mouths, daring each other, equally squeamish. A woman who could have been their mom stood back and took a picture.
Dwight put his arm around my waist. This was when we both believed that he was making me happy, when we believed it was possible to make another person anything. I was not confident that he loved me then—confident isn’t the word, but on that trip I had accepted it as a fact. I accepted that we would marry and we would be happy, me the happier of the two because Dwight could be happy with anyone and I could only be happy with Dwight—and something about that made me lean back into Dwight’s body. He leaned forward and, in a whisper, said, “We could have that. Those boys. We could if we wanted to.”
There is no way to say how Dwight must’ve felt at that moment. Thirty was still a long way off. We fucked on the floor every night and woke without ache or complaint, hours after sunrise. Life was still just a series of seasons.
In that moment, I felt his love. I felt like he saw all of me and loved me with this knowledge. His mouth close to my ear, he said, “We can have whatever you want.” And I said, “All of it and the statue,” like I was reciting a Sunday psalm, my voice clear and calm, sounding like everything but a believer.
Maurine Ogonnaya Ogbaa’s fiction has appeared in Callaloo, AGNI, and Prairie Schooner; her nonfiction, in Third Coast and The Elephant (Kenya). She is at work on a novel. (updated 4/2020)