1. Good Girl

Paz has been dead a month but he is still here.  Abby, his dog, snuffles in her sleep and moans, sounding much like Paz when he wore his oxygen mask in the last few weeks of his life. A psychic had told Paz that she saw him alive at seventy-four so he wasn’t convinced he was dying at fifty, even when the doctors suggested it was time for hospice.  Paz put little stock in medicine, holding the doctors responsible for misdiagnosing a case of rheumatic fever as a child.  He had told me this on the first date we ever had, but I was too giddy with lust and youth and was convinced his heart was strong enough for both of us.  He was a devout Buddhist, raised a Jew, and had read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, as many times as the twenty years I had known him. Still, he refused to consider the possibility of his own death, even when he was down to one hundred and twenty pounds on his six foot two inch frame, too weak to roll over or even get out of bed and piss on his own. We did without hospice.  I cared for Paz, wiped his ass, adjusted the oxygen tubing, administered the meds, made the holistic tea he requested and then let grow cold on his bedside table, read to him from his library book, The History of Baseball, because he was too weak to hold the plastic coated binding, and made him blended meals he could not eat before finally surrendering to the little cans of ensure.  I was afraid every time I left the room, afraid to close the door when I went to the bathroom for fear he would need me and I wouldn’t hear him call, his voice reduced by fluid and congestion that was filling the cavities of his heart and squeezing me out.

At the same time Paz could no longer get out of our bed, Abby stopped being able to go up the stairs.  I found her one morning slumped against the bottom step, her watery Labrador eyes beseechingly turned toward the top where her master lay dying.  I called the vet who told me to bring her in and I arranged for our next-door neighbor to sit downstairs with the baby monitor I had hooked up so I could hear Paz’s every move.  His low moans and wheezing breath replaced the radio where NPR had played on a constant rotation.  She was earnest, our neighbor, strident and evangelical, perhaps an odd combination for a nurse, or maybe the perfect one.  I lacked perspective.  We saw each other by chance at the hospital where Paz had gone for the final round of tests; she walked by in scrubs with a stethoscope draped casually across her breasts.  She had broken free of her group when our eyes met.  She seemed sincere and offered to help and as needy as I was, I shamelessly dragged her into our mess, probably because she didn’t flinch when I barked at her that Paz refused hospice.

I used to be strong from yoga, but now there are different muscles, from lifting Paz, rolling him in the sheet to move him from side to side, supporting his weight when he adamantly refused the indignity of the bedpan and demanded to be taken to the bathroom, up until a week before he died. So carrying Abby into the vet felt like I was carrying Paz. She even smelled like him, or the old him, slightly rank, a whiff of the out of doors always clinging to his skin.  There was a sense memory there, lurking in my addled brain, but I couldn’t find it.  Close to tears I pressed my face into the scruff of her neck.  Her fur was matted and gnarled and I felt a pang that I had failed her as well, considering I barely remembered to fill her food and water dish on a daily basis, so preoccupied was I with trying to keep a dying person alive.

The vet knew all about Paz and I could see it on her face when she told me that Abby’s fourteen year old kidneys were failing, that it wouldn’t be long before I would be totally alone.  She sent me home with more meds to ease the pain to aide in the journey, but not heal, the meds I am most familiar with, and I took Abby through the drive thru at McDonalds and bought her a Happy Meal.  I pulled into the lot of the park where Paz and I used to take Abby for runs and unwrapped the cheeseburger and put it on the seat between us.  Abby lifted her head and sniffed the wrapping as I slurped the soda and shoved the salty hot fries into my mouth, wondering when it was I last ate a meal.   Finally, she nudged the burger with her snout and opened her mouth and nibbled at the corners.  Watching her struggle I pulled back the bun and realized I should have asked for the burger plain.  The yellow cheese was slick with tomato and pickle.  I swiped a finger through the ketchup and hooked the pickle and popped it into my mouth and chewed.  Abby looked at me and back at the burger and then we finished our Happy Meal in silence.

When I came home and carried her upstairs into our room and put her on the bed next to Paz he raised a hand and slowly kneaded his pale blue fingers into her fur.  I had become used to the startling hue of his skin, but not his fingers. He long ago stopped wearing any rings because his fingers had shrunk, instead I wore them on a chain around my neck: his grandfather’s signet ring, a jade band and a large knob of silver set with a stone we found years ago on the beach.  I wore a similar one on my right hand, with half of his stone and the same setting and I wound a thin white piece of string around Paz’s finger where his ring had once been.

Once Abby was settled on the mattress she pressed the length of her body against his and they slept.  After that there was no other place she seemed pain free so I carried her down the stairs three times a day to watch her limp around the yard looking for a spot to let loose her bowels as I cried.  It was the only place I allowed myself to do so and I was amazed at how easily the tears came three times a day, like clockwork.  When she was done and I wiped my face I gave her meds on a spoon thick with peanut butter and carried her back upstairs to the bed I used to share with Paz. The last words he said to me on the day he died was: “such a good girl” as he patted Abby’s side.  I realize that was probably directed more toward Abby than me. But as a memory it is mine.

A week after Paz died I stopped answering the phone for two reasons.  One: telemarketers are surprisingly resilient where death is concerned, and two: my parents. My parents who have never quite forgiven Paz for being so charming I would fall in love with a man ten years my senior, never marry, and never have any children.  That I left school in my final year and was content to follow him from country to country those first few years of our relationship, was incomprehensible to them.  I had been the girl with big plans.  Up until I met Paz I had no idea how wrong those plans had been.  That I eventually received my degree and taught when we settled here in the home Paz’s parents’ had left to him didn’t seem to make things any better.  I had delayed my parents’ dream, not mine, which was why I had yet to tell them that when I realized that Paz’s heart would not beat forever, I tendered my resignation. The department head tried to talk me into a sabbatical, but I knew a temporary home when I saw one.

My parents wanted me to come out to Sag Harbor for the rest of the summer as if a tonic of creaky old wicker, salt breezes and a decent lobster roll could cure me of my grief.   My mother ventured that, at forty, I was still a young woman implying my youth somehow entitled me to a twenty-year do-over.  I refused, as I had refused them as Paz died.  We hadn’t talked specifically about what happened after his death, but I knew enough that Paz believed a person should exit this earth as quietly as they entered.  There was no one else to make the decisions: he was the only child of only child parents’, both deceased. I had no service, only cremation, with a vague intention to do something with the ashes other than leave them in the center of his mother’s Danish modern credenza in our front hall among a few wilting flower arrangements and cards I couldn’t bring myself to open.  There should be a meaningful place, but forced to choose among my memories, giving weight to some and not others, without Paz, is nearly impossible.

I started riding my bike at night because I couldn’t sleep.  Once Abby had her evening meds she was out, her body pressed against pillows covered in some old t-shirts of Paz’s, my pathetic attempt at recreating his body so she wouldn’t miss him.  In nocturnal exhaustion I turned to her in the dark looking for the comfort of a warm body; on two occasions her eyes were open, and she looked through me as if to say she knew the charade, but she was going along with it to humor me.

Paz had given me the fixed gear bike, as a present on my 21st birthday, because I didn’t have a driver’s license and he thought it was quaint.  The bike was from the fifties, a sparkly blue with the word: Hollywood scrawled in fancy script on the hub. While I did eventually get my license as convenience, I rarely drove when Paz and I were together.  The university, shopping, our home and Paz’s studio, were all within biking distance.  Paz enjoyed the curve of the road behind the steering wheel more than I, and I was content to have him there.  I still took my bike wherever I could, even the grocery store, preferring to buy only what fit into my wicker basket.

I was too timid at first, a mixture of paralysis and fear and loss, a horrible cocktail of loneliness, to venture further than around the block.  So I made the loop over and over again until I lost count and the houses and asphalt blurred.  I hadn’t even realized I was crying until I stopped and my face and shirt were soaked. It seemed that my body had decided to take the expulsion of grief into its own hands, having been denied its natural inclinations of sleep, sex and nourishment.

At dawn after that bike ride, I was hungry like I hadn’t been in months, and my mouth watered for the crepes Paz had made for breakfast after our first night together.  He had fed me. He tasted like sugar and his hair held the faint scent of the butter he had used to cook the crepes, and his skin warm where our bodies met.

I couldn’t recreate those crepes even if I had the ingredients, so I settled for what was left in the fridge: peanut butter on cold wheat bread drizzled with honey, making a slice for Abby too, without the honey and with the addition of her meds.

During the day I am tethered to the house by Abby, but at night I ride my bike, slowly moving away from the house like a reverse spiral, yet always arriving home just before dawn.

Right before Abby dies she lifts her head and looks around the room before dropping her head back down and nudging my shoulder with her snout.  She presses all four paws into my body with one last burst of energy before she goes, just as she had when she slept on the bed with us when I first moved in with Paz.  When she shoved us like that Paz and I knew our time languishing in bed was short-lived.

When I am fully awake and her body is still, I think all of this or none of this has happened.  I cannot be sure since I have no witness.  I get out of bed and wrap the sheet around Abby while I pee and brush my teeth and get dressed.  She is much heavier now as I carry her downstairs and out to the car.  I seatbelt her body into the back seat and realize that the last time I was in this car was after Paz died.

The vet is at the desk conferring with another patient and so I don’t have to say anything.  When she sees my face she knows.   She follows me out to the car and peers in the back window at the sheet that is Abby.  She puts her hand on my arm and whispers something I forget the moment I hear it.  The sound filling my head is that of the ocean after a storm.  There is a roar, a rushing, a crash, then nothing, a momentary lull, before it begins all over again.

 

2. The Winter We Stayed in Montauk

I woke one morning in a strange bed, limbs tangled up in sheets, in a borrowed apartment on Avenue A, three weeks into our stay in New York and told Paz I dreamed of the beach on a fall day, with the wind in my face and a thick sweater pulled around my shoulders.  “I could taste the salt in the air,” I said and was surprised to feel water collecting at the corners of my eyes.

We had been together a year and had only recently come back into the country. Paz had a fellowship in Italy for six weeks where we had lived in a crumbling villa with six other artists of varied disciplines.  I spent long afternoons alone at museums soaking in images I had only seen in art history books, and nights slightly drunk and sated from meals that stretched on for hours.  Later, naked, I was aware of the soft dimpled spread of my thighs and the half circle of belly that filled the hollow between my hipbones through the filter of an Italian moon, while Paz, stretched out beside me on the uneven mattress traced this new fuller body with his hands.  Back in the States I was always hungry, but never ate enough to be satisfied. The energy of the city made me burn through fuel as quickly as it was consumed, and soon my body reverted to its original form.

Montauk was a gift. Paz had friends with a beach shack that had a woodstove.  They offered it to us for the weekend and we stayed for four months.  We teased Abby into the surf that coiled at the shore with pieces of driftwood she retrieved from the foam, and danced in the snow at the beach on New Year’s Eve.  We made love under layers and layers of musty old Pendleton wool blankets, my flesh rubbed pink from the scratchy wool.   Skin tasted like salt no matter the washings with soap, and our hair was stiff from the air so close to the ocean.  We bathed together to conserve water from the rusty tank, huddling for warmth under the lukewarm spray, and Abby slept at our feet as sentry and added heat. I collected jars of stones from the shore, white with a tinge of pink, sanded to translucence from the size of a pearl to that of a perfectly shaped egg.  Paz sifted through them making Stonehenge-like piles, and held the stones up to the watery winter light separating them into shades of white.  We read a thick shelf of National Geographic magazines from 1956 and memorized most of O’Hara’s Oranges and Second Avenue, mildew spotted copies with sticky pages we found tucked away on top of the refrigerator.  Our only outside human contact was at the grocery store where we purchased whatever it seemed was left on the shelves from the summer people and the liquor store where we bought anything under ten dollars. It was an affront to our palates after drinking the most beautiful Italian wines, but we were not boorish about it.

When the below zero days of January kept us in bed out of necessity to stay warm, Paz asked me for stories of my childhood summers in Sag Harbor. Of sailing lessons, surfing, and first boys kissed, the smell of hot dogs and French fries and ketchup, mosquito bites and the condensation of milkshakes sweaty in your palm.  Sunburned shoulders, tiny bikinis, the ache as you lost the wave and you slipped below the churning waters, the distillation of bubbles and light as you broke the surface, striated vision from strands of hair across your face and the feeling of utter joy that you hadn’t drowned.

It was March before we saw a bundled up couple on Ditch Plains beach, their bodies bent like question marks against the wind. That night I knew as soon as I felt his lips move against the hollow at the base of my throat what Paz was about to say. “It is time to go, my love, time to go.”

When we left Paz painted for three months, sleeping in the studio when exhaustion sent spasms through his back and cramps threatened his fingers.  The paintings were larger than our beach shack, massive canvas where he tried to contain the power of the ocean.  Abby and I would go there and I would lie next to him while she sniffed the corners of the studio before standing by the painting, her head cocked to the side as if contemplating its breadth.  Curved against Paz’ spine I would bury my face in the fragile space between his shoulder blades. Unwashed for days, his skin and clothes smelled like the salty sea air, musty and rank and slightly sweet, like the winter we spent in Montauk.

 

3. Hunger

The crepes were paper-thin triangles, tinged a pale shade of blush, and dusted with powdered sugar.  Paz carried them toward the bed on a vermillion plate and my stomach growled at the sight of them.  I had been too weak to cover myself with the sheets we had kicked to the floor earlier in a rush to be next to each other on the bed, so I lay there, propped up against the headboard with many pillows, naked and waiting as he had banged around the tiny kitchen, refusing any assistance.  All worth it now as he set the plate down on my trembling stomach and brought a crepe to my lips.

The dance. Oh my god, the goddamn dance of longing, of waiting, of craving the feel of him. That want exceeded my inexperience in all matters physical and for once, didn’t seem to matter. That first touch was exquisite.  “What took you so long?”  I asked as Paz undid the buttons on my sweater and lowered his face to my breasts.  He laughed in response to my question, a soft explosion of his breath against my skin before I felt his mouth close around my nipple.  Dizzy, I said with a surety I hadn’t known I possessed, “This is going to be so good.”

And Paz had stopped what he was doing and looked up at me and grinned.  “You are a prophet, a goddamned prophet.”

Our lips and fingers were slick with butter and powdered sugar.  I touched the tip of my fingers to the spot on his chest where his heart beat.  Over the endless dinners, drinks and coffees as we had told each other the stories of our lives, and gave everything we had leading up to this moment, Paz had confessed about his weakened heart, the valves scarred from a virus, future surgeries and medicines, but all of it didn’t seem possible.  The color was high in his face, his arms and legs sinewy, his back a thread of finely sculpted muscle and beneath my fingers, a smooth unscarred surface. As Paz tossed the last crepe into the air and the dog caught the crepe in her mouth, the plate slid slowly onto the floor with a dull thud. The smell of burnt butter clung to his hair and his skin as we started the dance all over again and Paz, without words, said everything I ever wanted to hear.

ROBIN ANTALEK is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins2010). The Summer We Fell Apart was featured as a Target Breakout Book in 2010 and was published in Turkey by Artemis Seveler in 2011. Robin's short fiction has appeared in Fifty-Two Short Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, among others. She was a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Short Fiction as well as a two time finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters and Short Fiction Contests. She is also a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. For news and updates: www.robinantalek.com or Robin Antalek on Facebook.

18 responses to “All We Have”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh, Robin, this is breathtaking.
    I have tears rolling down my cheeks. You manage to wrap up a kind of collective grief in this piece, almost a shared memory, which is what only brilliantly true fiction can do so well.
    You are a stunning writer. I am so lucky to have your word to inspire me.
    xxx

  2. Well, fuck, Robin! If this is one of the things you’ve been working on since I last saw you around these parts, it’s been well worth the wait. This is a stunner–truly beautiful, nuanced, evocative. So happy to have you back on TNB Fiction!

    • Gina! Well, fuck yes, writing short stories is sweet relief from the umpteenth draft of a novel that is whipping my ass. It’s so good to be back. Thanks for having me here on TNB Fiction.

  3. Jessica Blau says:

    BRAVO!

  4. Oof, Robin, you are GOOD. I’d just like to say ditto to all of the above. Exquisite.

    • Thanks so much for reading, Cynthia. .. even though I’ve been away for a few months. Being alive here in the comment thread again at TNB feels so good. In the immortal words of Tina Fey: I want to go to there!

  5. Good lord. This is what you write in your OFF time? Your writing is magical. Thank you for gifting us with it.

  6. Sometimes I just have to give it over to the other voices, you know? A million jillion thanks for your wonderful words!

  7. Nat Missildine says:

    So beautifully done, this is exactly what I needed to read right now. Hope this won’t be the last piece of fiction we see from you here.

  8. Irene Zion says:

    Robin Antalek,

    When I read what you write, (it is so smooth and flawless,) that it seems you must have just dictated it without a single pause.
    You just keep getting better.

    • Irene it has been forever since we have been together on the TNB page! You always leave the most heartfelt comments — and for that I am forever grateful. How I sometimes wish for that little dictation fairy that smooths out all the rough edges and graces the page with an unspeakably beautiful and perfect draft! Instead, I must pull the curtain back on Oz — and it’s not pretty back here. I hope you and Victor are well… are you two off soon on any marvelous adventures?

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