originally published in 2010 by Underground Voices
This is number three. Elizabeth moves like a harvestman. Her fingertips press into the grout along the edge of the sink as she leans forward for the water flooding from the bathroom faucet to wash over the back of her head. The well water smelled like sulfur.
A week ago, it had just turned March, I think, and Elizabeth decided that if she couldn’t take her life, she’d take her hair. I watched her, sitting where I am now on the ugly floral chair in the hall across from the upstairs bathroom. I watched her chop off every last coffee-colored curl with our kitchen sheers, and I swept them off the floor when she was done while she sat crying in the empty claw foot tub.
She talked, clear and clean as a sociopath, about how she’d fill up the tub when I left and try to drown herself again.
I set the broom against the door frame and started down the hall.
Where are you going now, I heard her small voice say.
To the basement to turn off the water.
That was a week ago. Now she’s filling up the sink right in front of me.
“I know what you’re doing, Elizabeth,” I say.
The water streams from the short, thick curls still sticking to her head as she looks up at me in wide-eyed horror. “Henry!”
“Yes, Henry. Henry. Your husband, Henry. Do you remember him?”
She looks away from me to the half circle of stained glass over the tub. It’s night, so the glass is dim with the lights off the bay just in the distance. The pipes, painted off-white to match the walls and disappear, bang and shudder loudly when the upstairs tenant flushes the toilet. This brings Elizabeth back to life with a jump.
I reach over to turn off the water as it skims over the top of the basin and splashes onto the tile.
“Henry, I’m sorry,” she says.
“Don’t be sorry,” I say. I try not to look at anything but her eyes, but even those remind me of how much I’ve lost. Even when she smiles, they don’t smile with her. So I reach over her shoulder for a towel from the rack and blot the hair above her temple with a folded corner. “I called Dr. Vincent. We have an appointment tomorrow.”
She doesn’t answer. Elizabeth doesn’t think she needs a shrink. She told me once, while we laid in bed with the lights off, and I felt guilty about having sex with her again, that she’s the only one she’s ever met who sees things clearly, that she’s the only one who realizes how terrible the world really is, how she looks out into the void and sees nothing to catch her, how there are people around her every day, but she can’t feel them anymore, they’re not there, she’s the only one, everyone else is dead… She thought I was asleep, saying all of this. I should have been asleep. I’d wished I was asleep.
Why can’t I just let her be? Why can’t I just let her go?
We lie in bed again tonight, completely awake, completely naked, completely apart, and silent. Our sheets are purple, light purple. Elizabeth said they were lavender. I took her to Saks to pick them out after number one. The first time she tried to kill herself, I mean.
Saturday, June 18th, I pulled the Audi up the front drive late at night, just getting home from the office since I was trying to make partner. My head was swimming with legal jargon about a Baker Act case I was working on. When I switched off the headlights, I realized the small chandelier behind the glass front of the foyer was off. This wasn’t too disconcerting. I didn’t think too much of it, but it did stop me for a second. It was out of the norm.
The front door was locked as usual, but the lamps in the living room were out, and I could only see by the moon through the skylights. I usually found Elizabeth sitting in her green high-backed chair, wearing a house dress, with her feet tucked up under her, a book propped against the arm rest. I thought about calling her name, but I didn’t want to wake her. I turned on one of the lamps so I could see to get up the stairs.
That was when I saw blood on the carpet. In the dim light at the end of the hall, I saw a stain, long, thin, glaring on the white carpet. At first I was angry. I didn’t know it was blood. I thought it was a coffee stain on the beautiful white carpet. But the closer I got, the less it looked like coffee.
Standing in the doorway to our bedroom, I saw the blood lead to the bed. Elizabeth looked up at me, though I hadn’t made a sound, like she had felt me breathing. It was that look of wide-eyed horror with which I have grown oh-so-familiar all these months since June.
Her hands pressed into her right thigh. They were covered in blood. She had cut into her femoral artery with a paring knife, as if she were deboning a fish.
All I could say was, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth. And I held her and prayed and swore and smoothed the hair she’d touched with bloody fingers.
The paramedics came. God knows who called them.
I got sick in the ER waiting room, and this 70 year old man took me to the men’s room so the nurses wouldn’t get the idea I was the sick one. His name was Walter Gripp. I sat on the floor of the ER bathroom talking to him. He said I was white as a sheet, but I didn’t let him dwell on it. His wife, Pearl, had a heart attack and that’s why he was there. He kept saying her name, bring it up, like it was the most important word he’d ever learn. Pearl was a nurse in WWII. Pearl loved green apples. Pearl smelled like winter in the Berkshires. Pearl wore pearls. Pearl, he said, Pearl. Pearl, Pearl, Pearl. Her name was a tangible ball of ivory. He said, too, that this wasn’t supposed to happen. It should have been him.
My stomach churned, and I was throwing up again, just water and stomach acid retching into the bowl. I didn’t know Elizabeth at all. Sure, I knew her when we were 22, but now who was she? The only time I saw her, it seems, we were both naked. Did Elizabeth wear pearls? Did Elizabeth love green apples? What did winter smell like in the Berkshires, and was it anything like Elizabeth?
When they let me see her after surgery, I was barely standing. I leaned against the bed to kiss her cheek. She had all sorts of IVs going to her wrists, clear ones, colored ones, a transfusion. Her cheeks were flushed the way a child’s are who just walked out into the snow. I kissed her again, and the orderly told me I should let her rest. I whispered how much I loved her before I sat down.
As she recovered, and the life came back to her, I stayed by her side every waking moment. I told her she was beautiful when she woke up and when she went to bed and any moment in between.
She told me it was an accident. A paring knife to the thigh. She knew anatomy. She knew which artery to hit. But in my blindness, I believed her. I wanted to believe her. It released me from guilt.
I started asking her questions. What is your favorite flower? Peonies. What is your favorite color? Lavender. Favorite scent? The same. And it went on. I could write a biography about the girl. We took our boat out on the bay. She laughed and beamed in the sunlight. We cooked together, and it all came out terrible. We played in the snow.
Then came number two. It was just before Christmas, and a fine, powdery snow had fallen like dust around the bay. The shore froze up in a lip of salt and water.
Sunday, December 20th, we didn’t go to the hospital. The paramedics didn’t come. We lied in the bathtub still dressed for mass. She rested her head on the wet chest of my button up, the lavender one she bought me as an early Christmas present, and cried silently. Her dress floated to the sides of the tub where the water lapped when we moved. We were an ugly, sodden sight. The mascara wept from her eyes in awful spiders legs and stained my shirt. Elizabeth smelled like kerosene.
I had been standing in front of the closet mirror, buttoning my shirt, when I heard her throw up in the bathroom. We were supposed to be heading off to 11 o’clock mass. For some reason, her throwing up didn’t register to me until I heard the bathwater running. I was folding the cuffs on my sleeves when I found her in the bathtub with her clothes on, shaking. The bottle of kerosene we used for hurricane lamps during storm season last year was on the counter.
I asked her what happened, and she didn’t answer until I said her name.
I’m still here, she said. I’m still here and I hate here. She looked at me more sad and hopeless than horrified this time, and asked me why I wasn’t there.
I’m right here, I said. I climbed into the tub with her, resting her head on my chest. The water spilled out all around us. I was always right there. I was always holding her, yet too far away to touch her at all.
Dr. Vincent says, “Wait here,” and I force myself not to frown. Dr. Vincent is the best psychiatrist on the north end of the bay. He’s a tall, dry man with silver hair, a shaven face, and round glasses that go up to his eyebrows. It bothers me, the way he looks, the way he looks at me, like he’s clicking his tongue inwardly, the way he looks at Elizabeth, with feigned pity in his eyes, and the way he looks stuffed into brown tweed waistcoats.
“Here” is the wood-paneled waiting room of his office. I sit down in an overstuffed leather chair next to the magazine rack as he ushers Elizabeth, hand between her shoulder blades, into his office. There’s a depleted dish of potpourri on the coffee table. His receptionist smiles at me in the silence. I start leafing through a Sports Illustrated without looking at it, all the while keeping my attention fixed on the closed door to the doctor’s office.
I could almost hear them, only the back notes of their voices. He’s probably asking her about her hair. She’s probably lying. She’s telling him the drugs are working, telling him loudly. She feels like a hundred percent. That’s why she cut her hair, she says. I’m sure of it.
As their voices hush, I wait for Elizabeth to appear at the door, for me to take her hand, for us to ride the elevator down to the parking garage and go home. But this time, Elizabeth does not come to the door. It’s Dr. Vincent.
“Henry, can I speak with you?” he asks.
I can’t read his tone, so I stand up to meet him. His eyes are grey and sad like Elizabeth’s.
“Three times is enough,” he says, and we start bargaining for Elizabeth’s freedom.