All the Days of Thy Life
It was important not to nap. If George napped, he wouldn’t sleep at night, and then he would have to nap again the next day, and so forth. So why not nap when he wanted to and be awake at night? Because then he would never be awake or asleep, just drifting from pole to pole in hermetic twilight. Every day lasted a lifetime; every night lasted a lifetime. All sixty-three years of his life and then the rest, every day and every night. “All the days of thy life” include the nights also. It was a line from the Passover haggadah, the free edition published by Maxwell House, which his parents had picked up at Bohack’s and passed around at the start of every seder. As time dragged him further from his family, the stilted Talmudic language of the Passover story burrowed deeper into his consciousness, tendrils of his childhood that would not let him go.
He was going to see Marie that afternoon. Not Marie/Birdie, his soon-to- be-ex-wife who was always leaving—every day was leaving him a little more because he couldn’t pull himself out of his sadness and she couldn’t withstand any more of it—but Marie, Original Marie, the reason he nicknamed the second Marie Birdie. Original Marie wanted to see him. She had never moved out of New York, lived on Riverside Drive, and in the thirty years he and Birdie had lived in New York, their paths had never crossed. He searched women’s faces for her, hoping to find her but never did. How was that possible, that he could live less than a mile from her for thirty years without seeing her, and yet run into Bill Wichitt from high school at least once a year, Bill who lived in Forest Hills and worked on Wall Street and had no reason to come to the Upper East Side? Maybe because he wanted to see her and didn’t want to see Bill, who was the president of a midsize bank and was probably gleeful that George was no longer anything, and whatever spiteful God lurked in the shadows wanted to punish him for every happiness he had salvaged from his life.
Forty years ago, he had turned down the job in Montreal, director of the Montreal office of the cosmetics company whose name he now detested. He couldn’t move away from his family in Flatbush, his parents and his four younger sisters, his family who needed him to flip the mattresses and grease the hinges on their cabinets and chase the raccoons out of the chimney. He turned down the promotion in Montreal but then changed his mind and took it, spent ten years there, met Birdie there.
Had it really been forty years? Ten in Montreal, thirty back in New York as vice president of the cosmetics company, but by the time he returned his parents were dead, the house was sold, and his sisters had moved away.
He wouldn’t have said yes to Marie’s Facebook message, but Birdie hated him now; he had failed her just as he had failed Marie, and when your wife insisted that she was your ex-wife, there was nothing wrong in seeing your ex-girlfriend from 1973, before you met your current wife/ex-wife. Right?
He squeezed into a dress shirt that Birdie had bought him as an apology after that Yom Kippur when they had fought over him eating when he was supposed to be fasting, their tempers raging over that trifle, which was really just a shadow of the larger disappointment, his disappointing her after forty years. And even fifteen months later he couldn’t forget her cherry tart in chunks in the garbage and the roses in their cellophane sleeve shedding petals on the console table and the closed door and the forbidding silence and his secret vows to be better again.
He wore a red fleece jacket because the buttons on his coat strained, and went out to the elevator and pressed the button, and when the doors opened he couldn’t step in. He’d been cloistered with one woman for forty years, never had eyes for anyone else. He knew he had to free himself to survive, but like an old dog, his body couldn’t break its loyalty.
He stood facing the sealed elevator doors for he didn’t know how long, when the neighbors’ door opened and out came Penelope Hunter. He barely knew her but felt tender and fatherly toward her, and more than that, he understood her, and she him. Her husband was a fake, anyone could see that, and he had broken her, he saw it in her tired smile and the hunch of her shoulders. Not even thirty-five years old and already living in the stodgiest part of the Upper East Side.
He had always loved kids, loved his little sisters and their kids, badly wanted kids, but Birdie hated noise, didn’t see the point of children, wanted to round up all the children of Manhattan and ship them off to Staten Island until they learned manners. And that was that. No discussion. She had her reasons—a vicious set of parents who guilted her mercilessly over her marriage to a Jew—but he was heartbroken nonetheless. He wanted a large family or at least a daughter to spoil but didn’t want that enough to leave Birdie, not when he’d been left and could be left again, an endless parade of Maries who couldn’t bear his failure.
“You have to push the button if you want the elevator to come,” Penelope said, and he laughed as though he’d forgotten and pushed the button, and the elevator came. Outside they walked together but not together, and every time he glanced toward her, she was glancing back. Finally she asked where he was headed, and he told her he was going to lunch with an ex-girlfriend.
“So it’s true, then,” she said. “You and Birdie are . . . ?”
“I’d wondered about that.”
She said she was going to buy some chocolates for her mother’s birthday but really just needed to get out of the apartment because she was a little depressed, and Rick was working late every night, and she was tired of staring at the bookshelves and seeing the same books. He wondered if she was going through the same blank misery that he was, and he felt his heart crack and wished he could hold her and cry into her hair. But he hadn’t been able to cry in years.
On the frigid walk past the glittering limestone palisades of Carnegie Hill, co-ops one and all, past uniformed doormen lingering inside, fighting their boredom with attentiveness, he told her about Marie, Original Marie, about how she would buy clothes for him, boss around the barber when he got his haircuts, tell him to get into the car and pick left or right turns, and how they would always end up at some park or vista or crowded restaurant with space for two at seven thirty or eight, and they did it five or six times before he asked her if she had an inkling about where they were going, and she laughed, and she called him a dummy, and it was one reason she broke up with him, that he was too simple. What says the simple son? . . . “What is this?” Then thou shalt tell him: With a mighty hand did the Eternal bring us forth from Egypt, from the house of bondage. But maybe the children of Israel wanted the bondage. Maybe it was freedom that cursed them with centuries of unhappiness, plagues that circulated in their blood and surfaced generations later with atavistic brutality.
Marie said he was too simple and he wasn’t confident enough, and his voice wasn’t deep enough, and he wasn’t motivated enough, and he was probably going to spend the rest of his life living in his parents’ basement in Flatbush working as a low-grade publicist for a makeup company, and wasn’t that the most horrifying thing imaginable? And the more she hated him the more painfully he loved her, and on the first night of the Passover seder when he opened the door for Elijah she was waiting in her car at the black fire hydrant, and she broke up with him, made him sob in front of his bewildered parents, and she pretended to be sorry, but he could feel the fierceness of her anger in her hot, wet breath.
He admitted all of this to Penelope, these things he hadn’t ever told Birdie, but that was the way with strangers and sometimes neighbors—you just told them things to see how they would respond and how you would respond to the telling of things you had never said out loud. Because it was much easier to be honest with a stranger than with your wife. Was that a truth everybody accepted, or was it sad? If he’d been honest with Marie/Birdie about Original Marie, could all of this have been prevented? Or would it have fallen apart before it began?
Penelope had a proposal, a game of pretend, because she needed to step outside of her life and be someone else for the afternoon. It was preposterous but he accepted, because he saw in her eyes that she needed him to say yes, and anyway, he was afraid of meeting Marie alone.
Birdie had gotten so excited about him, adored everything about him, he could do no wrong. And in the glinting sunlight and bracing wind atop Mount Royal, it had been so thrilling, this idea that he could marry her and that he loved her, that the fierceness of her love for him could help him love her enough to marry her, even if he might have loved Marie more. Dayenu: it would have been enough.
Marie wasn’t at the restaurant, hadn’t called or texted, so he and Penelope sat in a burgundy banquette, close but not touching. Penelope filled the air with her news. She had been elected president of the co-op board and had launched an event-planning business, and she said it all made her feel like an adult, but that it was also so scary she wanted to hide. He said, “I’m proud of you,” and he could feel how happy it made her. He asked her about life with Rick, and she laughed in an unhinged way and admitted that it was rocky; she loved him but didn’t know him, wasn’t sure if she’d ever really know him, and he said, “Yep, that’s marriage, you have to hold part of yourself back.”
“To protect yourself?” she asked.
“To protect the person you love,” he said.
“Rick thinks he’s protecting me, but he’s really just abandoning me.” She glanced at him with tears in her eyes and looked away. “When your neighbors split up after forty years, you start to wonder why you’re working so hard to make it work.”
He didn’t have an answer.
He shook his head.
And then Marie was at the door, Marie/Marie, Original Marie, the Marie he had loved too much and disappointed. Marie.
She was fleshy—not like Birdie, who hadn’t aged a day in forty years—with a pretty duck face and a drapey silk blouse/pants combo and a jerky gait, hip troubles maybe. And he couldn’t see any of the Marie he had loved in her. But when they embraced, and he smelled her powdery perfume mixed with cigarette smoke and deeper body smells, and heard her voice, raspy and sweet, his body remembered everything all at once.
Marie was getting her third divorce, a lawyer this time. She had two daughters and two sons from the first two marriages, a playwright, a baker, a banker, and a pilot. She had become a therapist, with a master’s in social work. He told her a version of his story that made sense, not the one that really happened and made no sense at all.
“I took the job in Montreal,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for you.”
“I know.” Her smile shimmered with pride, but then he saw that it wasn’t pride, it was regret.
They were done with their stories and asked each other pointless little questions about real estate and movies and the horrendous cold, while the food came and went and the wine rose and sank in their glasses. It was one of Birdie’s favorite restaurants, and George chose it because he didn’t have a sense of what restaurant someone with taste might like, especially Marie who had always thought him tasteless. Penelope talked about her recent trip to Bermuda with Rick and her magnificent success on the co-op board and her volunteer work for a charity helping low-income women succeed, and George could hear how much she wanted these things to add up to something. He understood that she shared his affliction, the chasm between knowledge and feeling through which flowed only unhappinesses of the past.
Marie talked about her patients without using their names: one was a doctor who became a singer, one was a singer who became a priest, one was a man who became a woman, one was a woman who left the world of gender behind. Sometimes she helped them find the courage to flee; other times she helped them find the courage to settle down. “If only they could have traded lives!” she exclaimed, then found her point. “We start in one place and move to another, and sometimes we’re not ready to accept a gift when it comes the first time, and we spend our lives preparing ourselves for our second chances. We just have to hope that we’re granted a second chance.” Marie smiled at him and raised her eyebrows a little. She took a sip of water from the goblet, and condensation dribbled on her blouse, making a dark stain.
Marie had rented a house in San Juan for the winter, was leaving in a week, and her daughter was supposed to join her for the first month but she couldn’t go because her son was having a hernia repaired. So here was her proposal: “Would you like to come, George?”
The past rushed up to meet him, and he thought he might vomit.
In 1973 he’d accepted the job offer and left for Montreal the next morning, the morning after she broke his heart. His parents begged him to stay for the second night of the seder, but he couldn’t stay another minute; he had to make himself good enough to deserve Marie. His mother cursed and threw the horseradish root from the seder plate at him; the hairy, gnarled lump bounced off his shoulder and floundered on the floor like a flat tire. “The shiksa breaks your heart, so you have to go and break mine?” she cried. Three years later he flew home to bury her in the family plot, where his grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles were buried, and he could see more and more bodies tumbling in around them, cascades of arms and legs and panicking faces, a mountain of flesh scrabbling for a home in the earth. He believed that her cancer began the day he left, the day her body decided to die.
Marie said he would have his own room in San Juan, that they wouldn’t rush anything, that they would be friends first.
“I would love that,” he said.
“And Penelope, you’ll come too, won’t you?” Marie asked. “I’m looking forward to getting to know you. It’s amazing, the resemblance between you two.”
Penelope nodded, grinning, yes she would come, and for that instant they were a family, the family that George was meant to have, the family that would finally help him lift himself out of his funk and return to the world he had thrived in for so many years. Did it matter if it wasn’t true?
George and Marie split the check while Penelope busied herself with her cell phone. He walked Marie to the crosstown bus; Penelope followed a few steps behind.
Marie had been in love many times, she said, smoking a Virginia Slims, and no one had loved her as much as he had. At the time she had thought it was a weakness in him, and it made her want to be cruel. But now she wished just one of her husbands, or all of them combined, had loved her so much. “You were a gift that I wasn’t ready to accept,” she said. “I always cherished you, even if I couldn’t let myself have you.”
They walked on in silence—past pyramids of shining apples and oranges in the gourmet grocery, past townhouses and co-ops armored with brick and stone, past stores that had lived and died and lived again—the antique map store that became a pharmacy, the bistro that became a chain bakery, the fashion boutique that became another fashion boutique that was already out of business—because he didn’t want to say something that would ruin everything.
She laughed nervously. “Our child was another gift that I wasn’t ready to accept, you know, and I don’t regret letting it go, because I didn’t want to raise a child alone, but I think about it all the time, what a fine citizen it would have grown into.”
He kept walking because he couldn’t command his legs to stop.
A child. His child. His child that he had longed for since before Marie, and Marie carried it and Marie killed it. “I didn’t know about that,” he said.
“You knew,” she said. “I told you in my letter. After you went to Montreal. I told you.”
There had been a letter.
“Your parents didn’t forward my letter,” she said, falling into the past. “Then I’m sorry. I had an abortion. I waited a month, in case you wanted to . . . I thought you knew.”
“I didn’t know,” was all he could say.
And I will smite every firstborn: I Myself and not a Seraph. . . . I, the Eternal, I am He, and none other.
Penelope said she had to run, but that she’d see Marie in San Juan.
“Sometimes I think I saved you by letting you go,” Marie said to George, when they had arrived at the bus stop. “You needed to be free from your family. They were suffocating you.”
“I never asked to be freed,” he said, and his gruffness made her flinch, and for a long time afterward he wished he’d kept his resentment hidden from her so that they could pretend the past had healed itself.
The raccoons had made a nest in the chimney in the house in Flatbush. George hadn’t minded the rustling, but he did what he had to. He opened the flue and lit a fire in the fireplace, and as the smoke drifted upward the raccoons screeched. A thud between the andirons, and the burning logs shook as smoking balls of raccoon, large and small, lurched out into the living room, five or six of them, sparks floating off their tails, and he chased them around the bedroom with a broom, trying to sweep the shrieking creatures out the front door, the singed-hair smell like the taste of fingernails in his nostrils: blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The raccoons never came back, and the whole family slept well except for George, who closed the front door and returned to the fireplace just in time to see a baby raccoon release a final shudder as flames consumed its blameless body.
They were silent for a while, he and Marie, and he saw that it was Important to say something, to erase the anger he had shown her, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. When the bus came she patted his shoulder and said, “I really have missed you.” And they kissed lightly on the lips on the steps of the bus, and he remembered those lips, that kiss, tense then soft then tense again, top lip then bottom lip then tongue; forty years apart and the pattern hadn’t changed. His lips still tingled after the bus pulled away, and for the first time since he was let go from the cosmetics company, he saw a future for himself. He imagined himself telling Birdie—in the kitchen, maybe, where she often hid from him—imagined her disappointment when she saw that he had someone and she didn’t. She’d beg for him back, and he wouldn’t come back. He’d find out how his life would have gone if he’d been good enough for Marie.
But she never called. He left three messages for her over two weeks before giving up. She was already in San Juan, anyway; maybe her daughter had changed her mind and went with her. He wished he hadn’t gotten angry with her at the bus stop. He wished he’d pretended to know about her abortion. He wished he’d shaved his beard. He wished he’d suggested a restaurant that he liked, one on the Upper West Side so that she could have invited him back to her apartment for drinks. He replayed every word of the conversation inside his memory a thousand times and berated himself for not being more honest or dishonest, and still he could only guess why she had changed her mind. Maybe Marie found out, as he had known for his forty years of happiness with Birdie and somehow forgotten, that you can’t open the lid on the past without being obliterated by regret.
Lying half awake at two in the morning, after he’d given up on Marie ever calling him, he heard a scraping in the living room, and he opened his bedroom door and encountered her, Marie/Birdie, dragging the sofa across the floor, a tea towel placed under each leg to keep it from scratching, the doors of the display cabinet flung open, her collection of white marionettes splayed on the floor. She looked up as if caught cleaning a crime scene.
“I’m just rearranging a few things,” she explained. “This place is suffocating me.”
“Please don’t leave,” he said.
He saw a flash of hope in her eyes, then remembered that in Birdie, hope always looked the same as desperation. “I need my freedom, George. I have to try to be happy, even if you can’t be.”
He wanted to tell her that freedom was a curse, but she wouldn’t believe him. He lifted the opposite end of the couch and helped her carry it across the room. The small, oddly shaped sofa was much heavier than it looked. They put it down in a new place, and the room didn’t look better or worse, didn’t even look different. But Birdie was pleased.
“Thank you,” she said.
And he went back into his room.
On the first day of Passover he had moved to Montreal and left his family and Marie, and he met the second Marie and nicknamed her Birdie and pretended he was someone who had never been left before, someone who was worthy of love, and he could believe it, too. And they fell in love and married and filled up their lives with happiness, and it would have been enough, and she never knew that there was another Marie; he never told her, not once, not ever.
Jonathan Vatner is the author of the novel Carnegie Hill, debuting in August 2019 from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. His stories have been published in Confrontation, The Rag, The Westchester Review, the Best Gay Stories anthology, and other journals. His journalism can be found in numerous publications including Poets & Writers, The New York Times, and O, the Oprah Magazine, and he is the staff writer for Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology. He lives in Yonkers, New York, with his husband and cats.