Tête-à-Tête

Issue 46 by Stan Werlin

Tête-à-Tête

Debra is at the cemetery again reading to Martin’s dead wife. She reads the kinds of literature Martin says Annika enjoyed before the brain tumor: children’s books, the poetry of Robert Frost and James Dickey, novels of psychological suspense. Her startling enunciation, musical and evocative, lifts the words into the air where they linger like butterflies hovering in mid-flight, her rich, clear soprano a storyteller’s gift.

It’s Thursday, the day Martin customarily reads to Annika, but for weeks now his recent coronary and fitfully slow recovery have made that too difficult, so Debra goes in his place. She bears no resentment about this toward either Martin or Annika. It’s not as if it’s an imposed duty or a necessary obligation, a task she neither welcomes nor enjoys. Martin would never pressure her to stand in and perform this act of love on his behalf. He would never even think to ask. That would be too far out of keeping with who he is. The truth is she wants to do it. She looks forward to these Thursday afternoons, each one a chance for an honest and private tête-à-tête between herself and the woman who first owned Martin’s heart.

Sitting at the gravesite preparing to read, Debra tries to imagine Annika striking up a conversation, perhaps offering gratitude for the reading. Thank you for taking care of my husband, she hears Annika say. He’s so hopeless sometimes. I guess you must know that by now. So disorganized. He always hated to be alone in the house, even for those few hours when I might be out at a school board meeting or having a drink with a friend. If anything, Debra believes she’s the one who should be thankful, thankful to Annika for being the one dead – thankful to her for having died! How terrible, how hateful is that, she thinks. How greedy? Thankful to her for being buried in the same cemetery where my own daughter rests. Yes. Certainly thankful to Annika for that, above all else.

Debra often replays in her mind’s eye the day she met Martin at Annika’s grave. She had seen him there several times over a period of nearly two years, this sad, small man sitting by himself in a little folding chair with a thermos or a bottle of water by his side. He was often wrapped in a heavy winter coat or a bulky, worn-looking sweater, reading aloud for hours at a time. It was just serendipity, random happenstance; her daughter Melissa’s grave was nearby. When Martin suddenly disappeared from his Thursday readings – the victim of a jogging accident, a severely twisted ankle – Debra had simply taken his place as if she sensed that his loved one there would be lonely and might miss him. To this day she cannot say what motivated her to take up, on behalf of someone she had never met, such an unusual and deeply personal act. Call it quirkiness, perhaps simple empathy. Something to distract her from her own abiding, resonant grief. On the day Martin returned to the cemetery, he found Debra at Annika’s gravesite reading aloud, and in that confused, angry moment, almost against his will he felt his heartbeat flutter, his body convulse as if shaking itself free, and they had met.

What was so special about those Thursdays? Well, nothing really. But they were creatures of habit, Martin and Debra; they enjoyed their rituals then and now, the comfortable repetitive cadences of their lives. They were the kind of people who valued knowing that every day and night would be a familiar, well-traveled construct, and so it was inevitable, Debra is certain now, that the progression of those solitary Thursdays would inexorably bring them together.

In the first weeks and months after meeting Martin, when they were beginning to see into the layers of each other’s lives, Debra had tried to envision Annika, her features, her body, the shadings of her voice. How does anyone come to love the messy jumbled trifle of swirling traits and flaws that form another human being? Was she German? Eastern European? Tall? Thin? Stunning? Plain? Would men other than Martin give her a second look? What kind of a mother was she to their rambunctious twins Steven and Paul and their precocious, artistic Jessica? So many things to discover! So many ways, surely, that Debra would diverge from the woman Martin had loved and mourned.

She wonders often about herself. What kind of person reads to someone who’s been gone for as long as you, Annika? Who wills a corpse into conversation? Your Martin has locked you away in some private space, hidden the key or even worse, buried it deep in the sand someplace where he’ll never be able to find it again, just like the toy action figures he says your children lost repeatedly on beaches when they were young. He has cleansed the house of you, Annika. It’s as if you’ve been expunged. And I can’t tell if it’s because he wants to keep you for himself or just keep you away from me – as if I’m some intruder come to steal all the memories that go with you! It’s not healthy, Annika, is it? It’s not healthy, and it’s stuck there like a single metal rod attached to each of our chests that holds fast between us no matter what I do to try to close the distance.

Debra has attempted to pierce Martin’s impenetrable bulwark surrounding Annika a dozen times, only to encounter a level of resistance so fierce that she feels exhausted after every effort. She remembers the feelings of shock and uncertainty the first time she broached the subject, the sense, from Martin’s reaction, that she was careening into wild, dangerous territory. It was a few months after she had agreed to move in with him at the house he and Annika had built and shared. Their plans for the day – a driving tour of peak fall foliage in southern Vermont – had been scuttled by an unseasonably cold, lashing October rainstorm. “Martin,” she had begun over a leisurely Sunday breakfast of cinnamon scones and a steaming pot of his favorite Earl Grey tea. Her voice was so quiet and hesitant, her manner so meekly tentative that he could hardly be blamed for his absent-minded reply, a half-hearted “Deb?” with his head still buried in the Arts section of the newspaper and his mind absorbed in an unenthusiastic movie review. It was only when Debra gently but firmly pulled the paper down and away from his face with a loud, irritation-laced “Martin!” that he sheepishly laid it aside. He cast a quizzical, apologetic half smile in her direction.

“OK, sorry Deb. Go.”

“It’s about Annika,” she said, and even then, even before she could say another word, she saw his forearms tighten and his fingers quiver and his hands start to churn. He closed his eyelids as if he wanted to shield her off from whatever reaction she might read in them. She thought she could actually hear his entire body stiffening, his bones and joints cracking and his muscles tensing to gird himself for whatever was to follow. “I thought…well, I thought by now you might want to tell me something about her. About you and her. How you met. The things you enjoyed doing together. What you loved about her. What you didn’t. The things she did that drove you crazy, the things you did that drove her crazy, something, anything beyond this radio silence I can’t ignore any longer. So. Martin?”

He could hardly bring himself to look at her. A sideways glance, baleful, before he crossed his arms on the table and buried his face in them as if by this act he could hide himself away or somehow deflect the conversation. She stood up then, stood up and walked over to Martin, stood behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders and began to massage them gently. When he reached up to her with his left hand, she took it in her own and held it, waiting for him to lift his head and turn to her and say whatever he could bring himself to say. Instead, his shoulders began to shake and he grasped her hand tightly. It was only then that she heard him try to stifle the sounds of quiet sobbing. She sat by his side silently waiting for the moment to subside, helpless in the face of Annika’s ghost-like hold that seemed to paralyze Martin’s capacity to articulate even the simplest things about her. Debra knew then that she did not understand the depths of his pent-up sadness, or how to release it, or how raw and close to the surface it somehow still must be. “It’s all right,” she told him. “Martin, it’s all right.”

Two months later after they had hurried through a makeshift dinner and given in to an unexpectedly passionate moment (“It was the cabernet, it makes you horny and me frisky,” Debra would observe playfully), Martin finds himself lightly kissing Debra’s shoulder when the memory of that rainy October Sunday takes over his thoughts. They had not spoken of Annika in the interim, but in the time since then he had been preoccupied with his silence that day and his inability to understand his own behavior. So Debra is more than a little surprised when his words whisper against her neck. “It’s like she’s sealed away somewhere in my body in a kidney or a lung or some other vital organ and I don’t know how to release her.”

Debra’s not having it. “You locked her in, Martin. You did that. You’re the one who has to let her out.”

“My memories are starting to fade, Deb. There’s vagueness to some things now, specifics that suddenly seem beyond me somewhere over a horizon line that’s out of reach. Things are starting to drift away and I don’t want that to happen.”

“So wait, Martin, by talking to me about Annika your memories are in danger? By sharing her with me? That’s preposterous. If anything, maybe I’ll be able to help you remember. Talking with me about her won’t diminish your connection to her. You think the more I know the less special she becomes, as if you’re parceling out your memories to me or relinquishing control? She’s safely tucked away in your Annika compartment, and I’m here in the Debra compartment, and that’s the way you want it?” She’s breathing heavily, but the rest spills out. “That’s not love, Martin. I don’t know what that is, but it’s not love.”

Martin’s confusion is evident in his face. He opens his mouth to speak, but he can’t even get out the words. You’re immobilized, he tells himself. You’ve become an emotional hermit.

“There are no pictures in the house, Martin. No photographs of her anywhere. Where’s the happy couple? None with your kids or grandkids either. No shots of you and the kids in the Grand Canyon, or at Disney, or on those camping trips in Maine you mentioned once? I can see where you hung them on the walls in the bedrooms and the stairwell. All those faint squares and rectangles where the paint is fresher looking, a little less faded, those tiny spackled nail holes you never touched up. So where are they?”

Martin knows there’s no point in lying. “You’re right Deb. I took them down. I took them all down.” It’s hard to know who feels more defeated at this moment, Debra with her disappointment simmering into irresolvable anger, or Martin standing outside himself, observing the selfishness and dangers of his own behavior yet seemingly unable to break through the rigid boundaries he has so carefully built.

“Are they still here in the house? You didn’t destroy them, did you Martin? At least tell me you didn’t destroy them.”

“I can’t talk about this now, Deb. I feel like I’m going to be sick.” He maneuvers himself off their bed and slumps to the floor. “I’m sorry.”

*****

Her friends aren’t much help. Over a bottle of Rioja and a leisurely dinner of tapas, there is Monica’s graceless, aggressive “Just threaten to move out, Deb!” topped by Lucy’s wry, tongue-in-cheek “Close down the tunnel of love for a couple of weeks and I’ll take bets you’ll be hearing daily installments of ‘On the Road with Martin and Annika: An American Love Story.’” She wonders if they take her seriously, or even want to. They’ve got their own problems. She might just as well ask her hair stylist on the open floor of the salon, or accost their letter carrier at the street-side mailbox. The most on point comment comes from her long-time college friend Doug, fellow sociology major and source of late-night study group comic relief: “Is it farther to New York or by bus?” It’s what they would say to each other whenever a philosophical issue in a course just seemed too abstruse, or when a few puffs of weed signaled the start of the silly hour. Meaning: you’ll have to figure it out on your own.

She appeals to Martin’s children. They’re scattered and settled in far-flung places, Paul in Seattle, Steven in Tucson, Jessica moving every year from one major European city to the next, always on assignment. None of them have come back to Massachusetts to visit since Annika’s death. It’s as if their sense of obligation on that score, if any, had been only to their mother. Martin speaks to them infrequently. They barely know Debra, though she has the impression from Martin that each of them is happy, or at least not unhappy, that she is in his life.

At first her entreaties to them on the subject of Annika attract scant attention and even less empathy. Their responses are brief, antiseptic and disinterested. Paul: “He always kept his feelings bottled up, my mother hated that.” Steven: “I wouldn’t search the house if I were you. Believe me, he’ll know. He’ll come around.” Jessica texted from Lisbon: “Typical guyness. Can’t open up. Like it’s a mark of shame, or weakness. Good luck.” None of them offered to talk with her, and anyway, she knows she needs to get what she wants directly from Martin, not from his children. Still, when Jessica texts a second time “I’ve got a thought for you. Maybe I can help,” Debra is grateful. She knows the only way out is through.

*****

“I stopped at the cemetery this morning, Martin. Just for an hour. I needed to talk to Annika about something, and I wanted to leave a small bouquet.”

What?” There’s so much distressing turbulence packed into what Debra just said that Martin finds himself tongue-tied, stumbling over his next words. “But wait, Deb, what, what, it’s Monday today, it’s not Thursday, and talk, Deb, talk? Talk to Annika? What do you mean, talk?”

“Well you don’t think all I do is read to her, do you, Martin? My god, how boring would that be? Oh no, no, no. Lately we’ve been having the most interesting conversations. Quite animated and revealing. Strictly girl talk, though. Don’t think about coming along when you’re back on your feet. No, Annika and I agree that would be much too intrusive. You’d be quite unwelcome.”

Martin’s pulse pounds and he feels his face redden, rattled by an unmistakable adrenaline rush. His hands shake as he places his teacup back on its saucer, the two glass surfaces tinkling repetitively against each other. He can’t remotely locate the source of his fear. He’s no believer in the supernatural, which only leaves the thought that Debra’s visits to Annika have turned her psychotic. That would be a terrifying alteration to his comfortably predictable steady-state world.

“We’re both enjoying ourselves quite a lot. Getting to know each other a bit,” Debra continues, ignoring Martin’s visible state of agitation, his gaping mouth, that nervous tic he sometimes gets in his right eyelid. “The other day I told her all about Melly’s illness and death. After all, Martin, that’s what brought us together in the first place. Don’t you think Annika deserves to know that? I do.”

“Deb, what are you saying? You’re some sort of psychic? A medium holding graveside séances with Annika? Come on!”

“Oh, don’t worry, Martin. She hasn’t told me any of those deep dark secrets of yours. Nothing unsettling or too embarrassing. At least not yet. Last time I was there we talked about how much you enjoyed traveling Europe. Your trip to Italy? How she loved it, especially all that hiking in the Cinque Terre! I had to laugh at the awkward moment in Florence, though. Or was it Venice? Or Siena? The night you ordered your meal in Italian. Annika said the waiter had no idea what you were trying to say. He threw his hands in the air, stomped off cursing in rapid-fire Italian and brought you the English menu. She said his English, fractured as it was, was far better than your Italian. Oh Martin, Martin, dolce far niente.”

Martin is stunned. Debra senses it immediately in the shocked look on his face, the widened eyes, his mouth opening to ask the question that he forces himself to hold back. Dolce far niente was Annika’s favorite Italian phrase. How sweet to do nothing. But the rest of what Debra just said is wild nonsense. “Deb, what are you talking about? We never went to any of those cities. It was Rome, then south to Naples and Amalfi. We hiked, nothing strenuous, more like leisurely strolling through the national parks. We talked about the Cinque Terre but never got there. And as far as Italian goes, I’m hopeless with foreign languages. Annika was the one who spoke fluent Italian. I marveled at the way she engaged waiters, shopkeepers, people on the street. Even though I couldn’t understand a word. It helped us wherever we went, especially when we got lost. Anny’s not talking to you from the grave. The idea is absurd.”

Anny, Debra notes. In three years I’ve never heard him use that nickname. A tiny point of progress. “Martin, I know what she told me. You don’t think it’s possible, do you? She and I, we’ve got a connection. Maybe you’re the conduit somehow. I hear her voice when I’m there with her, that high soprano, just like mine. It’s as real as you and I sitting here talking right now.”

Debra’s correct about the voice, he knows, but she could just be guessing. “Talking to Annika! You’re hallucinating!”

“Maybe she was thinking about a trip she took on her own. Travelling with her parents. Maybe a college boyfriend before you? You said she knew Italian. Did she grow up in Italy?”

“Italy? No. With a name like Annika? Minnesota. She had Swedish roots, her family favored Swedish names. Her brother Axel. Sister Saga. All three of them with that unmistakable Scandinavian look, white-blond hair and sparkling blue eyes.”

Debra thinks she’s reached a tipping point. Something has loosened in Martin. She shouldn’t press her luck. Still, she risks one final question. “Was she tall, then? Maybe even as tall as you?”

Martin sighs. Perhaps it’s just feigned exasperation. More likely it’s weary awareness that a wall is starting to weaken. The energy needed to maintain that barrier exhausts him every day. “No, Deb. She was a tiny thing, thin and fragile.” He eyes Debra skeptically. “We buried her in an undersized casket.” He stands quickly then and stalks away, as if by doing so he can erase the conversation they’ve just had, the feeling of deep unprotected vulnerability that has suddenly unnerved him. He can no sooner do that than voluntarily stop breathing.

*****

Over the next week, Martin’s suspicions escalate. When he reaches Steven on the phone, there’s no polite preamble, no delicate probing. “What have you told Debra about your mother?” he shouts, more a shrill accusation than a question.

“Whoa, Dad, back up a minute there. What’s going on? I haven’t talked to Debra in months. And Mom doesn’t come up as a subject with her. Ever. You told us to respect your crazy shroud of secrecy and we all have.”

“Did you know Deb talks to her at the gravesite now? And she says Mom responds! They converse, Steven. She says they converse!”

“You mean she reads to Mom sometimes when you can’t. Yes you told me that a while ago. I don’t get it, but I guess it’s harmless enough. You’re both a little bonkers in my book.”

“No, Steven.” Martin’s voice is cracking. “Deb says they talk to each other. She says Mom talks to her!”

Steven sucks in a breath and counts to ten silently while he ponders what to say. Martin’s getting older but he’s always been levelheaded, the ultimate rationalist. “Dad, c’mon, you know better than that. Maybe Debra’s imagination is getting the best of her. She probably just fantasizes a conversation once in a while to have something different to do while she’s there. You know she gets a little flaky sometimes, right?”

“She knows things about your mother she couldn’t possibly know.”

Steven’s becoming exasperated. “Whatever they are, you must have told her.”

“No. That hasn’t happened. I know exactly what I’ve told her, which is damn little. I don’t exactly open up to Deb about Anny. Never have.”

“So she made a few lucky guesses.”

“Very specific things, Steven. Extremely specific things.”

“So ask her how she came to know these ‘extremely specific things,’ Dad. Better yet, just turn the page. It’s been five years. This stubborn silence of yours, it’s a source of tension that’s eating you both up, can’t you see that? And for no good reason. Deb’s great for you. So go talk with her about Mom.”

The conversation with Paul is a carbon copy. Jessica grits her teeth and lies outrageously. Like Steven, they both express mild concern about his mental health and the state of his relationship with Debra. They’re ganging up on me again, he thinks. Gruffly, he rebuffs them. Still, his irritation has given way to a seed of doubt.

*****

“How did it go, Deb?” Jessica asks. They’re talking on Skype, mulling over Jessica’s thoughts on when and how Debra might press the advantage. Jess has quickly come to see the situation as a psychological chess match and she’s always been a fierce competitor. Winning is all that matters. Now she’s Debra’s wartime ally.

“The ‘talking with Annika’ gambit is a hard sell, Jess. Of course it is. But ‘dolce far niente’ really threw him. Thanks for that, it was brilliant of you. Her soprano voice. And Italy. Just enough there to make him wonder. It got him talking, at least. It’s a start.”

“I know my dad, Deb,” Jessica says. “The uncertainty will crack his defenses. That and the fact that he never lets misstatements go unchallenged. He can’t help himself. When it comes to Mom and him, he’ll be affronted by anything you say that’s blatantly untrue. He’ll correct you every time. You need some fresh ammunition. Give me a day to come up with something good.”

*****

“Annika was in a mood today, Martin.” Debra’s next salvo is underway. “All she wanted to talk about was your kids’ misadventures when they were teens. The day Paul and Steven took your car without permission and mangled the front passenger door trying to angle park at the mall. Jess’s wild party and the wrecked living room. She even mentioned –”

Martin holds his arm straight out at Debra, his palm vertical in the universal “Halt!” gesture. “Deb, you can stop now. You can stop.” She tilts her head at Martin as if to say, keep talking. As if to say, this better be good.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” he continues. “It’s Jess feeding you all the details, isn’t it?” Debra looks away – what’s the point in pretending, she thinks – then offers a sharp defiant nod. “Had to be. No matter. They all love me, in their own ways.” He leads her downstairs to his cloistered man cave, where spread out on the pool table that hasn’t been used in years she finds several orderly rows of framed photographs.

“They’re the ones that used to hang in the den and the living room, and in the stairwell leading up to the second floor. When I took them off the walls before you moved in, I just stuck them away in a box down here. I took them out yesterday for the first time since then.” He pauses, then adds, “They’re in chronological order. See, here’s our wedding. We were so young.”

Debra takes the photo Martin offers, careful not to smudge the glass. “Look at you,” Debra says. “Look at her.”

“Yes,” Martin says. “Yes. Go ahead. Look at her.” He waits a moment, then hands Debra another picture. “One of my favorites. She was a dancer at college,” Martin says. “Ballet. To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free. It was her favorite Dylan line. She loved his early songs. Anyway, the ballet ended when she graduated.”

Debra studies the youthful Annika for a full minute, taking in her precise features, the tiny eyes, the high, sharp cheekbones. A smile that lit up her face. “Oh Martin,” Debra says, handing the picture back to him and picking up another, waving her hand at the pool table covered by images of his life with Annika. “I think we’re ready for you to join us.”

*****

It’s the first Wednesday following Martin’s prolonged successful recovery from his heart attack. They’re deliberately breaking with tradition, perhaps starting a new one. Martin packs two folding chairs into the trunk of their car and they buckle in. In the long light at the cemetery in the late afternoon the air is cooling, a thick cloud deck the color of dark slate obscures the sun. When they’re settled at the gravesite, he takes Debra’s hand in his and nods his head in the direction of Annika’s headstone as if signaling consent, or perhaps just readiness. He feels himself recalibrating, hesitantly moving toward an unsteady new equilibrium.

“We talked about wanting this day to happen for a long time, Annika. Martin’s here now. I know you’ll be pleased. Shall we invite him into our little get-togethers? It’s going to change things.”

“Anny,” Martin says. “Deb says you’ve become fast friends.”

Debra squeezes his hand gently and when they intertwine their fingers, Martin feels something within him give way, his clenched, shuttered heart opening with the speed and beauty of a perfectly formed rose blooming in a time-lapse sequence that takes it from a tightened bud to a vibrant, graceful flower in a few short seconds. It’s as if, unbidden, a portal to another universe has suddenly appeared and irised open, beckoning him forward into a bright blinding light. All he has to do is trust himself to step through.

There is a soft wind blowing through the trees, rustling the leaves of the nearby maples and oaks against each other in a way that feels like there’s poetry forming in the air, unrhymed and unpredictable. Martin leans forward, bending low to the ground as if he’s dowsing for underground water, straining to register Annika’s voice. Her words, at first indistinct, rise up now, gathering and carrying to him, to them, on the spectral breeze.

About the Author

Stan Werlin

Stan Werlin has published both literary short fiction and poetry since 2011 in numerous publications, including Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Review, Bacopa Literary Review, Gargoyle, The Dallas Review, and Roanoke Review. In addition, his humorous children’s poetry has been published in children’s magazines including Cricket, Spider, Highlights for Children, and Odyssey, as well as in several anthologies including A Bad Case of the Giggles, Rolling in the Aisles, and I Hope I Don’t Strike Out!