Jen and I became a couple in 1988 during my third year teaching in Juneau, Alaska. She was living in a big rented house out on Auke Bay with a handful of other people, one of whom was a good friend of mine who’d been on the same coed soccer team with her. It was so long ago now, I don’t remember exactly how she and I first became romantic together. Besides that good friend, we had a lot of other mutual acquaintances we sometimes did things with – camping, hiking, kayaking, fishing, skiing. We were all in our mid-twenties and had moved up there from the Lower 48 largely for its natural wonders and outdoor opportunities. So, I suppose those sorts of activities afforded us some time alone and things just developed from there.
Jen’s mother was actually an Athabaskan Native from central Alaska, and her father was of Norwegian descent. That combination of heritage gave her a distinctive kind of beauty. During her early years, her family had spent significant portions of time in the state when they lived in Dawson City on the Canadian border after her father got out of the Coast Guard and became a professional gambler. He played poker with marginal success in that town’s smattering of casinos before relocating to larger venues in Reno, and later, Corpus Christi, for an extended stretch where Jen spent most of her formative years.
Jen was the youngest of four children. She followed an older brother to Juneau who worked for the state government and got her a data processing job there. But within a few months, Jen was pleased to find a different position with one of the city’s few graphic design firms; she’d been a Fine Arts major in college and that was her passion. When we were first getting together, she was almost finished with the design work on a coffee table-style book about the towns and villages served by Sealaska, the largest Native corporation in Southeast Alaska. She was shyly proud of her work as she showed me the design drafts, which I thought were terrific. I came to know that timid reticence in her as common for anything she felt strongly about, part of a nature that was quiet and reserved, soft-spoken, humble, gentle, kind, tenderhearted, giving. Her eyes were a confluence of those qualities and drew me to her especially.
Except in bed, where her tenderness became engulfed in desire, our relationship was also a quiet and simple one. At that period of my life, I was trying to devote an hour or two each day to my paltry attempts at poetry, and she was more than content to spend that same time on her painting. Other than that, we took hikes together, kayaked on the bay, cooked, kept a jigsaw puzzle going on the coffee table, piddled over work we brought home from our jobs, and read in front of the fireplace in my apartment on top of a big Victorian on the hill above downtown. She kept her room at the house on Auke Bay, but spent most of her time at my place, which was only a short walk to her office. She painted in a little alcove off my bedroom, and I wrote poetry, or attempted to, at the kitchen table.
My apartment overlooked Mt. Juneau, emerald green and snow-capped even in summer, just across from Cope Park. When the weather permitted on weekends, Jen and I often took the short walk around the twisting hillside streets to Perseverance Trail and hiked up the mountain. The old, gold-mining operation that first attracted settlers to Juneau sat abandoned at the trailhead, and the trail itself followed Gold Creek, crisscrossing it several times along its ascent, until the T that led onto steep switchbacks to the top. Along the way, we saw mountain goats and occasional bears off on the highest ridges, soaring bald eagles and ravens, as well as salmon and steelhead in season in the creek. Once we got to the tundra-like meadows that met the snow cap, the city suddenly emerged three-thousand feet below perched on its small shelf of land fronting the bay, a cascading collection of peaked islands across from it and all of the expanse of Gastineau Channel and its endless wilderness in the distance beyond. The channel itself was a widening ribbon of grey-blue knifing through walls of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, cedar, lodgepole pine, and snow caps. If we brought binoculars, we could often see migrating whales off in the wider stretches of the channel as it merged with the sea, as well the horseshoe of Auke Bay where Jen’s house was fifteen or so miles away and the ferry terminal inlet near where the road ended twice that distance farther on. We generally sat leaning against a favorite boulder with whatever lunch we’d packed, me behind and her against my chest, my arms around her, eating slowly, taking in the splendor, not saying much, not in any hurry.
Our lives together fell into a rhythm that I guess I’d describe as companionable. We never fought, never even had occasion to raise our voices to each other. I was reserved by nature, too, but enjoyed a bit more socialization than Jen did, so sometimes went out without her on weekend nights with friends to hear live music, play pool, or have a couple beers. She didn’t mind; when I got home, she always curled up against me in bed and kissed my cheek before falling back into a deep slumber. She wasn’t interested either in heading after work to the local athletic club where I enjoyed a steady series of racquetball and pick-up basketball games, preferring instead a daily routine of meditation and yoga she did alone in the alcove. And she generally went to sleep earlier than I did, often in bed by nine where she’d read for a few minutes before I’d see the light blink off from the living room and hear her slow, even breathing begin. But, other than those few separate things, we spent a lot of time together, and it was nice, very nice.
It was a good winter for snow, and our local ski lift opened well before Thanksgiving. At first, Jen went with me quite a bit, but she wasn’t crazy about the cold, so left me mostly to do that with friends while she stayed in the apartment in front of a fire. An old Tlingit woman she’d met through Sealaska had taught her to knit, and she wanted to finish scarves as upcoming Christmas and birthday gifts to send to relatives. She also became interested in baking different types of bread, and almost always had yeast brewing on the back of the stove and a loaf going in the oven when I got home, the good, rich smell of it filling the apartment.
I wanted to do something special for her for Valentine’s Day and suggested flying down to Seattle for a long weekend. Jen said that sounded wonderful, but she’d be just as happy to stay home, make fires, maybe get a new jigsaw puzzle to work on, and sip Bailey’s and coffee together. So that’s what we did. When the weather warmed enough in March for a group of us to try mountain biking in the lower mountain slopes, she said she preferred clean and dry to muddy and wet.
Later that spring, Jen asked me what sort of art instruction my students had, and I told her not much since I had little background in the subject and the district had no real art curriculum. She volunteered to come into my classroom to teach a few lessons, and when she did, I was amazed how good she was at it. Simply put, she was a natural, and my fifth-graders loved her. While she was teaching them one day, the superintendent came by on a walk-through of classrooms and was impressed enough himself to hire her to start a twice-weekly after school arts program at the district office that drew students from several elementary sites; she was able to adjust her graphic design work hours to do that. The program flourished and was extended into what became a popular summer enrichment program.
That extra commitment for her didn’t bother me at all because I had summers off and always traveled abroad somewhere during them. That summer, I went to South America with a couple of other teacher friends while she stayed at my apartment pretty much full-time and continued working both of her positions. I spent an amazing three months exploring Ecuador and Peru, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and marveling at the one-of-a-kind wildlife and beauty of the Galapagos Islands.
Did I miss Jen? Of course, I did. Those were the days and areas of the world where the only way to correspond were by letters exchanged at American Express offices, and we did that several times. Like always, she sounded happy and content in hers with her regular routines, while I tried not to blabber on about adventures that frankly seemed to alter the sense of who I was. And I didn’t say a word about the free-spirited Swiss woman who was part of the small group of boat passengers I sailed with for a week among the Galapagos Islands because we only became emotionally close; nothing physical ever occurred between us. But I have to admit, I could tell as I was writing my last letter to Jen after leaving those islands, that it lacked the intimacy and gusto the earlier ones had.
She was waiting to meet me as I got off the plane at the airport in Juneau, and I was happy to see her; my heart did do a kind of flip. Our initial embrace was a long one, and I could feel her whimpering against my chest. We made love as soon as we got to the apartment, only getting as far as the living room couch. She cried a little afterwards, too, then fell asleep against my upper arm after I’d wrapped the couch’s afghan around us. It was early evening with a customary light rain falling, the late-August light still hours away from darkness. A small smile creased Jen’s lips as she slept. I sat looking at her quiet, lovely face, my hand on the soft skin of her thigh, and told myself I was one lucky son of a bitch. I whispered it to myself twice. I knew it was true, and I don’t know why, but I just didn’t feel the same anymore. I didn’t.
When Jen woke up a half hour or so later, she looked up at me, her smile widening, and asked, “Hungry?”
“My brother and I went out Thames Road on Sunday to that spot you and I found last fall and caught a few silvers. I have a filet marinating in the fridge.”
“I’ve missed salmon,” I told her, then paused. “Almost as much as I missed you.”
“You know what, Mr. World Traveler? I love you.”
“You, too,” I said. But I felt a kind of numbness as I did.
Jen gave me one of her pecks on the cheek before standing up and wrapping the afghan around her like a bath towel.
“Get the bar-b-que started,” she said, “and I’ll make a salad.”
She headed into the kitchen. Watching her go, I had a feeling like a small chunk of something had broken off inside of me.
I waited several weeks before telling Jen I needed a few nights alone to concentrate on revising some poems I’d written while traveling so they’d be ready for submission. She seemed unfazed with that and said she’d left things neglected at her house and could use some time there, too, to deal with them. I said I’d call her when I was done. That was on a Monday morning, and I found I enjoyed the time by myself in the apartment that night and the next; I’d forgotten what it was like. When I got home after work and the athletic club on Wednesday, there was a postcard waiting in the mail from the Swiss woman I’d met in the Galapagos. She was backpacking around the world and said she was heading to the West Coast of America next. She was planning to take the ferry from Seattle up the Inside Passage to Juneau in early December and hoped it would be okay if she stayed with me for a little while; I hadn’t told her anything about Jen and felt a jolt of excitement. I thought about swimming with her off one island as dolphins flitted in and out of our arms and legs, and then lying close together on the bow of the boat while it headed off to find giant tortoises on another. I shivered a little at the memory of the crazy night we spent drinking and dancing when we flew back from the islands to Quito; she’d asked me afterwards to travel on with her into the Amazon rain forest, but I’d declined. I slid the postcard under some things in the drawer of my bedside table.
Jen was putting a quiche in the oven when I came home Friday evening. She turned after closing the oven door, smiled with her eyes, and said, “Surprise!”
“Hey, you,” I heard myself say.
She extended her arms, and I came into them.
“The grocery store had fresh strawberries,” she said into my chest. “Alaska and almost September, can you believe it?”
I shook my head, but wasn’t sure if she could tell or not. I lowered my nose into her dark hair, inhaling its familiar scent, and rubbed her back the way she liked. I said, “Sounds great. Thank you.”
At dinner, she asked me how my poetry had been going. I told her, okay, even though I hadn’t really written a word. I’d spent most of my free time instead getting familiar with a pilot language arts program the district had implemented for the new school year. I asked her how things were at her house, and she said she’d taken care of everything she needed to. She told me her housemates were the same, that no matter how long she was away, they never really seemed to change.
“People are like that, I guess. They are who they are.” She smiled and said, “I know, pretty profound, huh?”
I found myself blinking. Just to be doing something, I scooped more strawberries onto my plate.
The rain persisted, so we didn’t hike that weekend. On Saturday instead, we went to a matinee, then out to a restaurant for an early dinner with her brother. We were in bed reading by 8:30, and Jen was asleep with the book on her chest a few minutes later. I lifted the book away, set it on her bedside table, and turned off her lamp. It was warm and comfortable in bed next to her, but my lips pursed against the uneasiness I felt inside.
On Sunday, the rain stopped midafternoon, but clouds still hung and drifted low against the mountains, so we were only able to sneak in a quick kayak across the channel to Douglas Island. Like always, she sat in front and I paddled from the rear. I watched her strong shoulders pull against the current and tried to figure out what had gone wrong, what had changed in me, what to say to her about it. As I paddled, I was aware of that same numbness that seemed to have become more present than not; it held equal parts anticipation and dread at what I increasingly felt like I needed to do.
When we got back to the apartment, Jen hung up her poncho, sat on the edge of the couch, and smiled. “So, what are you thinking about dinner?”
I lowered myself next to her, took her hand, and met her eyes. She frowned and said, “What’s wrong?”
“I think maybe we should give each other a little more space for a while,” I blurted. “I don’t know, since I got back, I’ve felt kind of stifled. Probably just has to do with all that time I was away this summer.”
Her frown remained and her hand went still in mine. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No, no, no.” I shook my head.
“Did I do something wrong?”
I blew out a breath. “Nothing. No, it’s just me. Something, I don’t know, unsettling I’ve been feeling and need to sort out.”
Her breathing had quickened, and she stood up suddenly. “All right,” she said. She took her poncho off its peg and shrugged it back on. “Fine. You let me know when you’ve figured it out and want to get together again. Will you do that?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
The look she gave me was hard, but her lips trembled. She opened the door and left. I heard her footsteps clatter down the stairs, heard her car start and pull away in the gravel, listened to it head down the hill until the sound of it disappeared. Then it was silent for a while until the northbound ferry belched its horn entering the bay way off below the tip of Douglas Island. It was a long, low, lonely sound.
The next few days were a jumble of emotions, to say the least. I still had strong feelings for Jen, even as they’d shifted somehow. Dinners by myself were discomforting, and I awoke in bed reaching over instinctively, startled to find her spot cold and empty next to me.
She came, as scheduled, for her final art class with my students for the fall on Thursday afternoon. When she entered the classroom, I was up at the chalkboard explaining something to them, so all we did was nod to each other in greeting; I was thankful for that limited interaction.
She seemed to hold her face without expression, but her eyes were troubled; I suppose mine were, too. She busied herself setting up materials and supplies for her lesson in the back of the room until I told the students to put away their books and papers so Jen could start. As was our pattern, I wandered through the aisles helping them while she taught, acting as a sort of teacher’s aide. She was having the students lithograph their own Native American totem pole designs, which aligned nicely with their current social studies unit on local Tlingit history. The lesson was well-designed, and she’d brought high quality lithograph supplies for the students to use; they all seemed reluctant to leave when the dismissal bell rang.
After the classroom had emptied, Jen and I were silent while I helped her clean up and store away the students’ designs. She put her hands on her hips when we finished, regarded me evenly and said, “So, how have you been?”
I shrugged. “Okay, I guess.” I tried to keep my own tone even. “How about you?”
That same troubled look crept back into her eyes. “Oh,” she said and shrugged, too. “You know, getting by.”
I nodded. “Good.” I kept nodding. “That was a great lesson, by the way. Kids loved it.”
“Thanks.” She kept her eyes on mine a moment longer, then said, “Guess I’ll get going, then.”
“Can I help carry stuff to your car?”
Her small smile made me ache. “Sure,” she said. “Thanks.”
We gathered the supplies into satchels she’d brought, and I followed her down the long hallway out into the parking lot. After we’d loaded things into her trunk and she’d closed it, she looked at me again. I thought: you really are beautiful and special; what’s wrong with me?
She said, “The landlord finally fixed our hot tub. It’s pretty nice, if you want to come by and try it.”
I felt my eyes widen, a little flush spreading up through me. Before I could consider further, I said, “Sure, you bet.” I watched her smile again. “I’ve got a quick meeting with the principal, then I’ll be right over.”
Her smile broadened and looked hopeful. She nodded and got into her car. As she drove away, she gave a little wave, and I returned the gesture. A raven called as it lifted off a telephone wire and another answered it. I rubbed my hand across my face, heaved a sigh, and went back inside.
Jen’s car was the only one parked at her house when I got there. It wasn’t yet four in the afternoon, and I knew none of her housemates would be home from their state jobs for at least an hour. The front door was open, so I knocked on it, and called, “Hello?”
“Come on in,” Jen’s voice answered. “Out here on the back deck.”
I closed the door behind me, crossed the vaulted living room, and went out through the slider onto the deck. It stood on tall pilings in the shallows of the bay. The hot tub, already bubbling and steaming, sat tucked away in the far corner draped by a canopy of spruce trees. The afternoon was a mild one with just a solid sheet of high clouds, but no hint of rain. Jen stood barefooted next to the tub in a thick white bathrobe I’d never seen before, pouring red wine into two glasses. A couple of large towels were folded against the side of the tub. She set the glasses beside each other on the rim of the tub, smiled over at me, and said, “Hi.”
I said, “I don’t have a swimsuit.”
She untied the bathrobe and dropped it on the deck. She wore nothing underneath. She climbed up into the steam and lowered herself slowly into the water as far as her waist. I met her gaze and watched her take a sip of wine before taking off my clothes and getting into the tub next to her. She reached a fingertip over and I watched her follow it with her eyes as it touched my chin, watched her follow it as it ran slowly down my neck and chest and stomach into the water. Then she wasn’t shy at all.
Afterwards, we sat against each other like we always did on top of Mt. Juneau, and I could feel her heart gradually slow. We sipped wine and only spoke in short spurts. At one point, she asked me if I could remember the first night we slept together; I told her, of course I could, and she rubbed her thumb slowly against the back of my hand. A little later, she told me that part of what first attracted me to her was how different I was from her father, that I made her feel safe. I said I hoped that was a good thing, and she told me it definitely was. I can’t explain what I felt exactly when she said those things; it was all mixed up, something between relief and regret, I suppose.
Every so often, the hot tub’s bubbling stopped, and I could hear the sound of the incoming tide knocking against the rocks and barnacled pilings until Jen reached over and pushed a button to get the jets going again. Occasionally, an eagle flew by over the treetops or we could hear a boat motoring out towards open water. Perhaps another quarter-hour passed before my friend’s voice came faintly from inside the house. It sounded like he was talking to someone on the phone. I know Jen heard, too, because a long exhale escaped her.
“Yeah,” I said, “sounds like we’re not alone anymore.”
“Well…this has been nice, but…”
I used my fingertips to give her a gentle nudge. She let go of my hand and leaned forward with another sigh.
I climbed out of the tub, toweled off, and put my clothes back on. Jen didn’t move from where she was, but poured more wine in her glass and took a long swallow. I zipped up my jacket, lifted Jen’s hand to my lips, and kissed it.
I said, “So, listen, I’ll see you, okay?”
She just nodded, the troubled look seeping back into her eyes. I turned and walked across the deck and through the slider. I was glad my friend wasn’t in the room when I let myself out. I started my car and drove away, that now all-too-familiar numbness enveloping me again.
I glanced at myself in the rearview mirror and said, “You’re an idiot.”
We had one more time together a couple of weeks after that. Jen called and asked me to go for a hike at Eagle Beach, a beautiful, little-used trail north of her house on the other side of Auke Bay that had long been a favorite of ours. I said sure, and met her there at the trailhead on a cold, blustery Saturday afternoon. She looked great in her jeans and hiking boots, with a heavy fleece, knit cap, and mittens against the advancing fall weather. We held each other in a hug that lingered a bit, then set off. She led, like usual. We found mundane things to chat about as we walked through the wide meadows surrounding the marsh, but there were long silences, as well, when the only sounds were our footsteps along the packed earth, the quiet rustle of the water against the reeds, the wind in the trees, the calls of one of the many eagles that nested there.
After a mile or so, the trail opened out onto the sea and fronted a wide beach. We stopped a little beyond Scout Camp and sat next to each other against a big spruce trunk that had bleached bone-white with a collection of other driftwood along the back of the beach. Jen unpacked a thermos from her knapsack and poured us each a cup of Bailey’s and coffee. It steamed as we sipped and looked out at the long stretch of tiny waves the wind had kicked up, the spray on them seeming to chase itself until they fell onto the pebbly shore, splayed forward, then made their soft, rattling retreat.
After a few minutes, she set her cup beside her in the sand and laid her head against my shoulder. I set my cup down, too, but made no other movement. I’d gotten another postcard from the Swiss woman earlier in the week letting me know that she’d arrived in Los Angeles and was starting her journey north by train. I’d also spent almost every recent night sitting on the couch alone letting the darkness fall, no fire lit, no smell of fresh bread wafting in the air, the puzzle on the coffee table exactly as it had last been left, no quiet, sweet humming from the alcove off the bedroom.
When Jen put her mittened hand on my knee, I stiffened, but didn’t place my own over it. Instead, I squeezed my eyes shut and made tiny shakes of my head I hoped she couldn’t feel. She began to weep quietly, but I did nothing to comfort her. I just lay stretched out there next to her, aching and confounded. I wanted to scream.
Perhaps ten more minutes passed like that before she sat up straight, packed up the cups and thermos, and I followed her back on the trail to the parking lot. Ours were the only vehicles there. Jen opened her car door, tossed her knapsack onto the passenger seat, then looked at me with those eyes.
She said, “I guess this is it, then.”
I felt my lips purse. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m so sorry.”
She nodded. “I’ll come over while you’re at work next week and get my things. I’ll leave my key.”
I clenched my jaw, the ache inside deepening, and stepped back as she got in her car. She started it and drove away slowly. She didn’t wave, didn’t look over, kept her eyes straight ahead. If she’d begun to cry again, I couldn’t see it.
All of Jen’s belongings were gone from my apartment when I got home Monday evening. Her key sat in the center of the kitchen table next to my journal. I stared at it for a while before picking it up and throwing it across the room. It clattered against the wall and fell propped against the baseboard. The apartment was silent, absolutely no sound at all, the light outside already in its last decline towards gloaming.
I got another postcard from the Swiss woman later that week saying she was loving California’s central coast, had taken surfing lessons there, and was heading next to San Francisco; a little heart followed her signature at the bottom. When we were together in the Galapagos, she’d told me that she’d had some good reviews as a stage actress back home and had even appeared in a few television commercials. Her laugh was infectious. Another guy who was a passenger on the boat with us told me he’d never seen features as fine as hers in his life.
October, in typical fashion, was full of rain, twenty straight days of it. That only added to the distress that seemed my constant companion. I picked up the phone to call Jen at least a half-dozen times, and drove over and sat in my car outside her house a couple of others, but didn’t do more; I was frozen inside, telling myself not to act unless my feelings were genuine and clear, yet not knowing when or if either of those conditions could be present. Like a skiff loosened from its mooring, I felt untethered, lost, traveling a course without a sense of where I was heading. I often just went through the motions at work and sometimes found myself staring out the classroom window at my desk; while I was doing that once, the shyest girl in the class tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was all right.
During the first week of November, the Swiss woman sent another postcard from the redwood forests of northern California. Her message said she’d stood under the carved arch in the trunk of a tree large enough to fit a car through. “Amazing!” it concluded. “Can’t wait to see if this is what Alaska is like!”
I only came across Jen in person two times during that period. One was in the grocery store when she was in the checkout line as I entered with my shopping cart; seeing her there, I caught my breath and hurried down an aisle before she saw me. The other was when she was stopped in her car at a traffic light a couple of vehicles in front of mine; I could just see the back of her head then, the stillness of it, and imagined it lying on my chest in bed; then the light changed, she turned at the next corner, and I continued on straight ahead.
I saw my friend who was her housemate at the athletic club pretty regularly and finally asked him how she was doing shortly before Thanksgiving break. He told me she’d begun seeing a man named Robert. He’d played on the same coed soccer team with them; I’d gone to watch a few of their games back then and got to know him a little when we all went out for beers afterwards. He was a nice guy.
“Works for the city as some sort of engineer,” my friend said. “Kind of looks like you. Actually, he reminds me a lot of you in general. Seems like she’s really happy with him. He practically lives at the house these days. They like to play board games together.”
“Good for her,” I heard myself say. “Good for them.”
But I was unnerved enough by the news to take a few extra days of personal leave from school and head home to San Diego for the entire Thanksgiving week. All my siblings were there for the holiday, and being with my family helped some with the way I was feeling. We played touch football, went to a music festival, and ate too much; distractions that, at least a bit, kept my mind off things. The weather was warm and sunny, which also did its best to brighten my spirits after the long, rainy fall and the dreary entrance of winter.
I got back to Juneau in the evening during a heavy snowfall and had to shovel my way up the stairs and into my apartment; the only footprints on the way were the postman’s. I quickly rifled through the mail when I got inside and found a new postcard from the Swiss woman. In it, she said that an old boyfriend had flown over from Geneva to join her in Portland and that they’d decided to head to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons instead of coming to Alaska; she said he was going to teach her to ice climb there. Then, she said, they thought they’d probably try New York City next where he had several friends they could stay with. There was no heart after her signature.
I sat down heavily onto the edge of the couch and held the postcard with my fingertips between my knees. Outside the window, snow had begun to blow sideways in fat, crazy flakes. The fireplace hearth across from me was dark, cold and pitted; I felt that way inside. I wished I could start a fire, but in my funk that fall, I’d neglected to get firewood. I thought of Jen and pictured her eyes, pictured them looking at Robert, and wished more than anything that they could look at me that way instead. I hung my head before realizing I was sitting on the same spot she had been when I told her I needed some time alone.
I left Juneau at the end of that school year and returned to San Diego where I found a teaching job not far from where I grew up. That next spring, I met another teacher at a district inservice who would shortly become my wife. Our son was born two years later severely disabled and medically fragile. He spent as much time in the hospital as at home, usually for long admittances; my wife and I took turns staying overnight with him there. The dysmorphologist who first treated him at birth told us that kids like him rarely lived past the age of five because their compromised immune systems just couldn’t fight infection any longer. Our son made it until just after that age.
I came home from school on a spring afternoon several months after his death to find my wife perched on the edge of our bed in her jacket with a small suitcase at her feet. I felt my eyebrows knit as I met her sad gaze.
“I still admire and respect you,” she said. Her words were almost a whisper. “But I don’t love you anymore.”
My knees buckled. It was as if someone had slammed a sledge hammer across my chest. I heard myself say, “Is there someone else?”
“That’s only part of it.”
She looked away, then stood up and lifted the suitcase off the floor.
“No,” I said. “Please.”
I extended my arms towards her, but she shrugged under them and hurried down the hall out the back door. After the sound of her car had died away, I collapsed against the foot of the bed. It felt like I was falling, falling, falling in a black well with no bottom.
I hadn’t seen anything coming, had no idea she felt the way she did. I tried everything to make her change her mind: daily phone calls, waiting to speak to her before and after work, once even exploding into her classroom while she was teaching. But she wouldn’t have any of it; I was served with divorce papers one afternoon not long after she left while I was on bus duty in front of my school.
It didn’t take long for me to remember how I left Jen and to reflect on the quiet grace with which she’d held herself while I put her through that. I showed nothing of the sort with my wife; in fact, I was as far away from anything like it as I could possibly be.
I never remarried, never was really even close with another woman again after that. I did stay in touch over the years, though, with that friend who had been Jen’s housemate. Like her, he’d remained in Juneau, but stopped through San Diego to visit every now and then. Just before my fifty-seventh birthday, he sent me an email that contained a link but no message. The subject line read: “Sad News.” The link was to the local Juneau newspaper, and when I clicked on it, Jen’s obituary opened on the screen. I sat back in my desk chair and stared out the window where two hummingbirds hovered at a hanging feeder I’d just filled. What I felt inside at that moment wasn’t much different than when my wife had told me she was leaving me.
I forced myself to skim through the salient portions of the obituary: a short, courageous battle with ovarian cancer; left behind a husband, Robert, and nine year-old son; active in adoption advocacy groups; longtime and revered head of the school district’s art department after beginning her career with a chance experience volunteering as an art instructor in an elementary classroom many years ago; known for her extraordinary kindness, gentleness, and compassion; loving wife and mother. I scrolled quickly through the litany of comments afterwards, most from current or former students, as well as parents and friends, all noting the simple, but profound, way she’d touched their lives.
There was a small photo of Jen in the upper left-hand corner of the article. Her hair was a bit longer than when we’d been together, but it couldn’t have been taken more than a year or two after that. Her eyes were there in the photo; so was her quiet smile. I kissed my fingertip and touched it to the photo on the screen. Jen had been a year younger than me, which would have meant she’d been forty-seven if they adopted their son at birth. Now he and his father would be on their own without her. My throat tightened at the thought of him and Robert alone without her.
I shook my head slowly as I considered our separate struggles all those miles and years apart. I shook it harder, as I often had, wondering what might have happened instead had I put my hand over hers on my knee that afternoon out at Eagle Beach. I was vaguely aware of a bicycle passing by in the street, its bell clanking dully. Sprinklers hissed on in a neighbor’s yard, and a dog barked nearby. I touched my fingertip to Jen’s photo again and wondered, like I had so many times before, about love ending. I thought about those things in life we can control and those we can’t, and how either way, they all become irretrievable.