As its title suggests, May We Shed These Human Bodies (Curbside Splendor) by Amber Sparks is a collection of stories that is grounded in reality, but often has a hint of the surreal, the supernatural, woven into its fabric. The power in these stories comes from the awareness that a life is at a tipping point, and the assignment of emotional weight to everyday events we typically ignore. Just out of sight, behind the curtain, in the shadows, strange things are happening—dark moments that echo our secrets and lies.

To my darling Cecilia,

I’ve spent much of the day – such a harsh and lonely day! – reclining in my recliner and daydreaming of the house we once shared, of the days that once were, and are no more. I ate the remaining crabcakes – such last and homely crabcakes! – and washed them down with recollections of the home we made together, where we, or at least I, had so many good times. In the afternoon I bought some shirts.

And I was nearly overcome by the brutal and unforgiving strength of my fond memories. Nostalgia gripped me like a headlock from Jean-Claude Van-Damme, except around the face, and every time I tried desperately to break the hold of the past and steal a gasp of the present, all I could taste was another muscly mouthful of sweating Belgian.

Metaphorically.

I laughed as I remembered lying on my hammock in our shade-dappled orchard backyard, sipping on a glass of iced tea (as cold and refreshing as if it had been squeezed straight from Martin Sheen’s heart), the sun on my face, watching you gingerly reshingle the roof. I chortled heartily as I remembered you, shaky-voiced and trembling, confessing you had a mortal terror of heights. I guffawed until I couldn’t breathe and I started to faintly taste vomit as I recalled the terrified shrieks of anguish you made, falling three storeys up, only to hook your ankle on the giant breasts of one of the gargoyles that I had selected, and you had paid for and installed, some months previous.

Ah.

Those were the days, all right.

How I wish we still lived together now, Cecilia, because then my heart would once more be overflowing with love. And also, because I wouldn’t have to leave the house, or even the couch, really, to get laid.

But mainly, it would be about my love.

My love for my swimming pool, which cherished and understood me better than you ever could. Diving into its cool, forgiving waters was like hearing a choir of archangels sing Handel’s Messiah. Closing my eyes and drifting through its peaceful shallows was like listening to Mariah Carey’s sensual audiobook interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. Swimming into the embrace of its darkened depths was like watching Joe Pesci get pulled apart by rabid timber wolves. It was my solace, and my bliss, and my respite from your well-meaning but misplaced and wearyingly continual attempts to engage me in conversation.

Just as there is no longer a you with which to spend my life, so too is there no longer a swimming pool in which to avoid you in.

And it’s breaking my heart, Cecilia.

I spend my nights alone now – alone and shirtless, gently rocking back and forth in this rocking chair that we bought together with your money for your mother, feeling the cool night breeze slink in through the open bay windows and caress my naked torso with gentle fingers. Sometimes I eat a sandwich and play Mortal Kombat to take my mind off my troubles, it’s true, but that’s not very often. Sometimes I wonder if Lord Byron would have been so moody if he’d had the chance to assume the role of Raiden, God of Thunder, and teleport from one side of a room to another, shooting bolts of lightning as he did so.

But Mortal Kombat is no you, Cecilia! Just as you are no swimming pool! I’ve been forced to make do with sneaking into my neighbour’s hot tub at nights, although, I have to say, the most entertaining part of these little endeavours lies in selecting which of the secret passages I have devised into his back yard to use – an idea that I lifted in its entirety from an Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Three Investigators novel:  The Mystery of the Falsified Paternity Test.

Do you remember our secret tunnels, Cecilia? I’m sure you don’t, because I never once shared the location of them with you, as it would most likely have raised questions about how I never had to buy gas, and your car kept getting siphoned clean, even when you parked at your sister’s house seven blocks over. Let me just say this – that with a shovel and determination, a packed meal and an up-to-date map of the municipal sewer system, a man can get his hands on a surprisingly large amount of his de facto wife’s car’s gasoline. If you catch my drift.

If I must spell it out for you, what I mean to imply is that I spent a lot of time watching your sister undress.

There.

I’ve said it.

The moon is full and the Glenlivet is good and the night is hot, Cecilia. Hot like the sex you had with Steve Buscemi on the Oriental rug that I brought back from the Orient, along with a scale model of the Orient Express. Although there were no Gypsy thieves making gas attacks on that particular miniature.

How happy I was when I walked in the door with that rug, proclaiming ‘Fuckin’ awesome! Check out this badass rug! I already totally love it way more than I’ll ever love you! I sure do hope I never catch you having a sex with a male celebrity or overweight female celebrity on this!’

Yeah.

I asked for one thing.

I turn for you, tragically,

Simon

I have a lot of trouble sleeping. I have just about every sleep disorder a person can have, things you’ve never heard of, esoteric sleeping disorders.  When I can’t sleep or I wake up and can’t go back to sleep, Victor wins. I’m too tired to write or to paint, so I give him massages. He can get a massage when he’s fast asleep, wake up enough to enjoy it and then go right back to sleep. He’s an unusually gifted sleeper.

Recently we were in a hotel in Sweden where there was this sign in the bathroom:

 

 

My daughters both love “products.”  I got my love of “products” from them.  I wanted to try all of them. The “Schampo” and the “Balsam” were both in the shower. I didn’t know if the “Balsam” were a conditioner or a body wash, so I regretfully didn’t use that one when I took my shower.  I didn’t want to body wash my hair after “schampoing” it, in case it wasn’t a conditioner.  The only balsam I know about is that really unusual wood that is so soft you can carve it with your fingernail.  I couldn’t figure out if that would be good for conditioning my hair or washing my body, so I used a bar of soap I saved in the plastic hair cover from the last hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

Also on the counter were these two lotions:

 

 

 

 

Naturally, I couldn’t sleep and Victor was snoring away, so I grabbed one of the lotions and tore off his blanket and gave him an exceptional massage.  Victor does love a massage, regardless of whether he is asleep or awake.  I gave him a good, hard working over.

But I was still awake.

So I snatched the other lotion and gave him a second massage with that lotion. I thought it would be interesting to compare them.  It’s not like I had something else to do in the middle of the night.  My eyes wander out towards my ears when I’m tired, so I can’t even focus to read. The massage started out perfectly, but after a while the lotion dried out, which was weird. I had never had this happen before.  His skin felt like paper. Victor mumbled that he thought perhaps the aloe vera was not a lotion but was instead a liquid soap. I went into the bathroom and ran water over my hands and, by golly, it sure got sudsy.

So I returned to Victor and I told him he had to get up and take a shower, because he couldn’t leave the liquid soap rubbed into his skin all night. Surely he would get a rash or at the very least it would dry out his skin and make him super itchy. He was snoring again.  I shook him awake and repeated myself. He declined. He had no intention of jumping in the shower in the middle of the night.  He wanted to sleep. He didn’t care one whit about the state of his skin in the morning, or ever, if truth be told.

But I felt bad about using soap on him for his second massage of the night, and I still wasn’t tired, so I gave him a third massage with the original lotion. I gave him a super-long, super-greasy massage to try to counteract the crusty film of dry soap. By this time, I had tired myself out enough to go to sleep myself, which sometimes happens.

In the shower the following morning, Victor was completely obscured in suds, without having to use any product whatsoever. It was as though I were watching a body wash commercial where they used lots of computer animation. And in the end, his skin was soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom.

In our four decades together, we have been continually calculating and honing all sorts of strategies which make our living together function as best it can. When we first retired, we were together all the time. That might sound like fun, but it did not turn out to be.  After we came to our senses, we decided to do our volunteering in different places and on different days, so that we have some time apart. This keeps us from being together 24/7, which we quickly discovered was a recipe for getting on each other’s nerves. We’re in our sixties now, and we simply don’t know how much longer we will have together. We want to make the time we have good time.

Don’t get me wrong, we still get into arguments; we’re far from perfect, but you learn certain tricks over the years. I can’t say I know what tricks Victor uses to keep me from making him crazy. I’m sure that he must have tons of them, though. I know I can’t be easy to be around all the time. My kids have told me that enough times. These maneuvers must be covert or they simply wouldn’t work. I’m quite sure he has no idea how often I have to count to ten and to ten again until I can answer a question that might well have resulted in a snide answer, without the requisite pause to get knee-jerk anger out of the equation; or how often I keep my eyes closed tightly when he is driving, so I don’t make that squealy noise that escapes when I think we’re about to be smashed in a massive car accident. That squealy noise really ticks him off. You know, that is the sort of thing is that I mean here. We had to learn the art of making concessions to each other. The art of compromise, done clandestinely, so as not to call attention to itself, done smoothly, no keeping score. (That part’s important.)

There was a time when my sleeping difficulties used to cause friction between us. He used to wake up if I left the bed and then he’d be grumpy all day from lack of sleep. When I figured out that he didn’t care if I woke him for a massage, it totally fixed that problem. It gives me something to do when I’m bleary and tired and it makes him happy. I really feel a sense of accomplishment when I can make Victor happy, since Victor is calibrated a bit off to the cranky side, truth be told.  Frequently it leads to a nice bit of hanky-panky which is always rewarding.  He goes right back to sleep, and there is the added bonus that sometimes it wears me out enough to go to sleep myself.

When we got married, we honestly didn’t understand what being together entailed. We each came with pre-conceived notions that turned out to be hopelessly fanciful. It took us a good long time to learn that for our marriage to survive and to thrive, we had to work at it. We had to figure things out. Sometimes it was hard, but we fell in love for a reason and over time, consciously working at it, we grew together and fell in love over and over again for a million other reasons. For Victor and me, the world is our oyster now, for as long as we have together.

(Excuse me a minute, Victor is hollering at me from across the house, so I need to count to ten a few times before I go to see what he wants this time….)

I called you from Utah because I wanted to hear your voice underneath the unending vastness of the pale blue afternoon sky, against the haunted emptiness of the waiting land.

I wrote you letters and sent them across the sea because I wanted you to come home to find them waiting, and hold them in your hands, and know the truth – that I wouldn’t leave you, no matter how separated we were by distance and by chance, by helpless accidents and unforgiving wreckages of the past we never had a chance of preventing.

I said goodbye to you for the first time, so long ago now, in the night at the airport terminal, and as I stood and watched you walk away through the loneliness of San Francisco International to Laura’s waiting car I wanted so much for you to look back at me, and you did, and the look on your face when you raised your hand uncertainly to wave cuts through me still.

I’ve stood guard over that moment; it’s too important to me to ever lose to the untrustworthiness of memory. Just as I’ve held all of my memories of you close to me and safe; just as now I’ll hold on to what it was like to see you, again.

I don’t need to replay the past and painstakingly construct new bridges of possibility of what you or I or we could have done differently on foundations of everything that has passed – but there is warmth in these recollections, and I allow myself the comfort of drawing them out when I need.

Of walking through the heavy rain in Japantown. Waiting for you in the lobby, my shoes soaked from flooded sidewalks, and rainwater still running down my face.

Of night through the Mission, waiting on street corners for the lights to change, walking through rivers of people in twos and threes, catching words and phrases in Spanish, light and sound and scent painting the streets and the two of us moving together. You told me then that being with me felt like being let out of prison; I didn’t know what to say back, because I knew I couldn’t say anything that would mean as much to you as those words did to me.

Conversations and coffee, and early mornings, and late nights. Market Street, 18th, Church. The J and the Muni and the stairs up to your apartment, and that cold light that washes over the streets of San Francisco in the late afternooon, that threw long shadows along the corridors of my house and warned of the heavy fog to come.

Today I stood on the sand of a Malibu beach and saw a girl who wore the same windcheater you have; for a second with the sun behind her she could have been you, and I wanted to take your hand and walk through the surf and over the rocks. Because while we’ve spoken of large and sweeping movements between us, so many of the missing parts were the small ones, the tiny brushstrokes of shared experience, measured in seconds and minutes and hours.

Now there has been so much I can’t know where to think it all begins and ends; I searched for understanding in our words and our silences. I needed to know where every piece fit together so I could still the terror of losing you that welled up in me whenever we were apart. I would have found something to be scared of no matter what – the flaws in me bend that way and without you, I might never have known who I am.

Whatever else, you have given me that. Whatever else, you have given me the knowledge of what it is to be loved, and now I want you to know that it was that, and it was you, that opened the doors of the world to me, who took my hand while I walked through. Whatever threads wind themselves around us to knot and catch our limbs or guide us home, wherever and whoever I am, and whoever I become, I will carry you with me, and the knowledge that everything changed because of you.

And so now that the last storms have passed, with so much fear at last drained from me, with my feet on solid ground, I can leave this country again tomorrow night, freed from what has been, and want happiness for you. I can leave this place we have found between us because it is a good place for us, I think, and while we may not share it, neither does it have to hold us tight and pull us down to the earth. I can leave behind everything that is not what has been, wanting only for you to know how grateful I am for you and what you’ve left me with, and how much I hope you find love and peace in the solace of days.