What remains of you has come to me in an off-white carton marked “Fragile Vessel.” Inside, a dark glass jar holds you. Will your ashes be like the ones in the fireplace: soft, flyaway, flat between the fingers? A gentle gray you’d dress a baby in? But the body has bones, like your femurs, once stretched out on beach sand, long thighs covered with fine hairs, gold, like tree pollen. Will your ashes be gritty, like the floor of the canoe under my bare knees? Or salty, the taste on my lips in the rescue boat? The canoe a tangerine rind in the sea’s mouth.
Out our townhouse window, the horizon a tow rope for the sun. Jasmine and Ria not up yet. I pulled on my jeans and slipped away to find your tent, a traffic cone under the gray-green fir spires behind the subdivision. I was still shivery from last night; I missed your crescent-warmth against my back, your hand cradling my left breast. It wasn’t my friends, you’d said, when you hauled your gear up from the basement. But you wouldn’t say what it was. It made sense for them to stay over – the flight left early, and our place was closest to the airport. You wanted to come with me, keep me company in my free time. I’d said no. I’d been waiting for time without you, time when you didn’t turn off my cell phone, when you didn’t pester me to go for a paddle in the cold, when you didn’t put your arms around me and say “So?”
You were warm in your suede vest when I unzipped the sleeping bag. Your birthmark a tiny hand just above the waist of your boxers. This time it was me curling up to your back, like a larva on a leaf.
“Meme.” You had folded your arms in an X over your chest, but you squeezed my hands when they found yours.
“You’ll be glad when I’m back?”
“I’ll take you bungee jumping just like you’ve always wanted.”
You smelled like pot. You only smoked up when you were upset.
“Hug Random for me.” I’d put our husky in the basement after he’d jumped up on Jasmine’s silk shirt. You’d brought him home on impulse one day.
Our whole relationship was an impulse. Me getting up in the middle of a movie – the first time ever – to escape Javier Bardem’s eyes in No Country for Old Men. You stopping outside the cinema to peer at the stars through the clouds. Your hair chaotic like late-summer grasses. I remember how far down you had to reach to shake my hand, how my fingers disappeared inside your palm. I didn’t have to grow into my name. Mimi. You called me Meme from the start. I don’t think you knew it meant “cultural virus,” and I never told you. We went to a barbeque place down the street, and you ate corn on the cob in little rings around the cob instead of going along it. You said you liked my yin-yang look: skim-milk skin against charcoal curls. We’d studied at the same campus – you’d stayed for a year, and I’d stayed for five. That night, you tipped my face up with one long finger and kissed me on the chin.
The next day, you took me out into the bay in the canoe. When I told you I hadn’t paddled since high school, you said not to worry. You’d been on the water since you turned twelve, when you camped out to escape fumes from your mother’s rec-room hair salon. The canoe, the same fluorescent orange as my life jacket, weighed no more than a reed basket. It steadied as soon as you slid your paddle in. For a moment, I sat still and watched you: the long plane of your back, the clean arc of your arms, the soft entry of the blade. The quiet communion of body, boat and wave. That night, I stayed.
A month later, when I moved in with you, you decorated with bunches of beach daisies and carried me over the threshold, even though I told you I never wanted to get married. We’ll have a girl first, you said, Cassiopeia.
At the conference, I pushed hard to get new clients, smiled at their humid faces through happy hour, served up clever sound bites in question periods. I thought of you when I could, alone in our bed, or were you in your tent? You hadn’t been away for a night since we’d known each other. Once you’d paddled home in the dark from a friend’s cabin so we could sleep together. When the conference ended, Ria and I went out to a club – to celebrate my three new contracts – but I didn’t wear the dress with the cutout back. You liked when I wore dresses, especially the cranberry one with the full skirt, although you didn’t want me to lead when we danced at other people’s weddings. I had to lead sometimes: you took short-term jobs so you could go hiking in between, you fixed people’s bikes for nothing. It was because of me that we could buy a townhouse close to the bay. Not that the payments kept you from taking time off when Random limped home after a fight.
When I got back, the kitchen was warm, like bread from the oven, and so were you, your skin still radiating the shower’s heat and the scent of juniper soap. You’d gathered mussels for dinner, scraped away the wiry hairs from their tight-lipped edges. You chopped herbs for the sauce, and I rinsed the shells under the tap, careful not to crack them. I let them slip through my fingers, ink-black, iridescent, like exotic eggs, the kind that, in stories, hinge open to reveal jewels inside. I felt sorry for the mussels when you scooped them out of the steam, their mouths like newborn birds`. Later, when we made love, I smelled garlic on your fingertips. We didn’t talk about the conference.
The next morning, I threw up. I crept to the couch, and you covered me with a blanket, tucked in the edges along my legs and arms. Then you placed your hand on my stomach for a moment, as if to settle it. Before I took the test, I knew. My cells clanged like freight trains building speed: zygote, embryo, fetus, infant. I knew you’d cry when I told you, like you cried when your mother’s last check-up was all clear. I knew I’d cry too.
I stole time from work, ran the knotted trails through the firs until I couldn`’t. Then I walked, negotiating, hands over my belly so I couldn’t be heard. The rise and fall of my breath twinned, the flat band of flesh below my navel inhabited. Flesh stretching and filling, four limbs lengthening, reaching – like the wings of a heron lifting, your long arms, clasping, from behind me. The double arms of Cassiopeia, widening.
After, when I told you, you didn’t cry. You didn’t say anything. My insides clutched, searching. You got up from the edge of the bed and stood at the window, watched the wind lash the firs. Your suede back to me, your fist on the window pane. I wanted you beside me, wanted the weight of your hand on my stomach. When I said I wasn’t ready, you left without looking at me, pulled the door shut behind you. Your hiking boots, muted, on the basement steps.
I take the black jar out of the carton, put my hands on its cool sides. I don`’t open it. I’m not ready to empty it.