For months after his beloved died, there was a heat inside Rob’s chest as if a nugget of polonium were leaking radiation. Rob consulted Lyle, his doctor and a friend, who diagnosed, half in earnest, heartburn. Grief unexpressed. It was obviously true, but how, Rob wondered, do you express that kind of grief short of wailing day and night curbside? You cannot. It sat compressed inside his chest and it would have to be released. The energy to wail was spent. It had been nearly a year.
Bit by bit he got rid of the reminders, until in one last putsch, garbage bags stuffed with clothes went out the door to Goodwill, including a good portion of his own. He wanted to start over. He understood that was a good sign. He kept a few things, mostly fluffy oversize socks, nice to pad around in on rainy nights, handkerchiefs, some decorative pins, an expensive coat that was his gift to his beloved.
He had to make peace with what he had known all along: that there is no afterlife, no visitations, no messages, no communication from beyond. No hooey.
He didn’t dream of his beloved. He thought that too might be a good sign. Most of his dreams were problem-solving; the connection between him and his beloved had no loose ends, no needs left raw and untended. Of course they had their moments of irritation and pique, but the understanding was unquestioned: they were to be together to the end. The end? A diagnosis and death a half-year later. Time that went by in a blinding flash.
Perhaps by having it named, the heat in his chest subsided, forgotten for longer and longer periods of time. The socks, which would last a lifetime, lost their significance. They became mere socks. He never wore the coat.
But he started to dream of his beloved, variations of the same dream in which his beloved is not dead but instead has moved back to convalesce with family in Detroit. Rob waits his return but is met by ever-increasing silence until there is no contact. His beloved does not call nor answer the phone. That theme is repeated in different settings. Some mornings he doesn’t remember any of the dream’s details but knows, from the bitterness in his mouth, that he had the dream again. Lately the dream has added a chapter: Rob is at the Detroit airport and he makes a call, and his beloved speaks to him in a disinterested, flat tone, and the wail inside Rob arises like sulfur, and he wakes up.
One day he notices with shame how slovenly he has become. His beloved had kept the house immaculate, and Rob had come to value orderliness too. Now soiled clothes littered every surface, the detritus on the kitchen floor was archeological. He set himself the goal of cleaning the kitchen, knowing he would flag if he faced the whole house and the garage. It all had to be done. While he was working he was beset by the potentially defeating thought, But who am I doing this for? The one who will not answer my calls.
If he was able to suppress oceanic wails, he could suppress this thought, and he did. He continued cleaning, trying to milk the satisfaction he actually felt as layers of grime disappeared.
On the windowsill in the dining nook, behind an assortment of knickknacks he discovered something he mistook for dried blood before he identified it: a begonia leaf that his beloved had snitched from a plant in the conservatory. “What will you do with a leaf?” Rob asked.
“I’m going to root it.”
A leaf? Rob kept his skepticism hidden. It was the harrowing time when all manifestations of life were clutched with a superstitious fervor. They found a plastic cup with a slit on the top for a straw and inserted the stem of the leaf into the full cup of water. They put the cup on the windowsill and forgot it.
The leaf lay flat, exhausted on the plastic lid. It had been more than a year and surely the water had evaporated and the leaf had dried up. But the color signified otherwise, and Rob touched it, finding the flesh tender. He took off the lid. The cup was as full as the day they had filled it. For a brief, appalling moment he manufactured a fable about a ghostly visitor doing the watering. An obvious explanation was available: Maria, the cleaning woman who used to come every few months and never dusted the knickknacks, would have filled it. She didn’t want to be a cleaning person. She wanted to be a gardener.
More surprising than the full cup, a mop of white roots dangled from the leaf stem. Without hesitating Rob found potting soil and dribbled some into the cup until the roots were covered. Once the soil was saturated, after some indecision, he discarded the lid and punched holes in the bottom of the cup to let the water drain down the sink. He wasn’t sure what the shock of such a big environmental change might do the plant. The plant was no longer a leaf.
He put the cup back of the shelf and watched and waited. If new growth came, where would it come from?