This is how Jane finds out Charley, her ex-lover, is sick: when Marybeth, the department secretary, sends an email to “humfac,” all the Humanities departments (English, History, Philosophy, Modern Languages, Women’s Studies, and Ethnic Studies, merged into a Hydra whose multiple heads kept gnawing its shared shoulders).
Jane deletes most of Marybeth’s emails. She only opens this particular email because of the subject heading: “Update on Charley.”
She reads it, then rereads it.
Charley is out of surgery. He is resting. Vivian thanks everyone for the lovely flowers.
Jane pictures Charley’s wife Vivian: her long, muscular neck, which reminds Jane of a horse with a chestnut coat; her Katharine Hepburn-ish voice; her blue-edged nostrils. She pictures Vivian so she won’t have to picture Charley, lying in some hospital bed, IV tube biting his hand.
By the time Jane opens the email, the thread is already snake-long: “So glad to hear the surgery went well!” “Love to Vivian!” From Eloise, the dimpled Medievalist: “Our prayers for them both.” In Jane’s secular department, only cancer activates talk of prayers.
Despite Jane’s efforts, her imagination cannot avert from Charley’s body.
She remembers lying in bed with him, three years ago, the first time they had sex, and seeing, on Charley’s ribcage, that strange scar: as if someone had taken a cherry-pitter to his torso. Her trailing finger lingered there; she looked at him questioningly. He looked back, not saying anything, and then, finally, “Subdermal melanoma. It was five years ago.” He leaned over, rapped the headboard with his knuckles.
“You never said.”
“Well.” He is from New England, not Vivian’s tony, manicured Greenwich, but Maine. He is reticent. As a couple, handsome and tweedy, Vivian and Charley always struck Jane as some bare rock promontory, just visible from the shore. Holding his hand, curled into a loose fist, Jane pictured herself as a black, glossy seabird, perched precariously on that rock.
He kissed her. “Afraid I’m going to die on you?”
In her office, sun slants through the window, spotlighting swirling motes of dust.
Jane remembers their first afternoon together, mixed, like the dappled wall of her office, of the joyful and the somber. She remembers the way Charley’s fingertips lingered over her own scar, the keloid on her shoulder from the teeth of her neighbor’s Doberman. In an email she sent him that night, she wrote, “I feel comfortable showing you my scars.” And he responded, “I love scars. They show you’ve lived.”
How can Marybeth’s email be the way Jane discovers he is sick? Not just sick, but if the cancer has returned, likely dying? Surely this qualifies as the kind of emergency to end the embargo on email that is not strictly business related, soporifically dull? They had promised…
Well, they had promised many things. They made promises in conflict with earlier promises (“Don’t fall in love with me.” “I will never mess up your marriage.” “This is separate, just us.” As if hotel rooms with their padded beds represented their own rocky, salted islands).
Jane looks at her watch: 2:55. Her Survey begins in five minutes.
She gathers her anthology and lecture notes and stuffs them into the leather satchel that she bought eight months ago when she and Charley agreed to part—such a mature phrase. The bag was a treat, because she required comfort. Later: brownies, fancy stockings, a one-night-stand, too much wine.
She walks to class quickly, but also carefully, because she is wearing her painful shoes, camel and bone, that she wears only on Wednesdays, when they have divisional meetings. Charley once unbuckled the strap and said, “My God, these are sexy.”
She is two minutes late to class. Jane registers her students’ disappointment when she walks in. She knows not to take personally their resistance to being in class on a sunny, April afternoon. She puts on her reading glasses, which she doesn’t like, because they are silly, and red, and make her look owlish (but she has not made time to get proper glasses because the optometrist, unlike satchels or ham-and-cheese croissants, does not qualify as a treat).
But then she takes them off, because she knows this poem by heart.
Charley’s favorite poet and her own, the first thing they connected over, years ago, long before kisses and hotel rooms and promises-in-conflict and then withdrawals and silence. This is what she misses most: not being in his arms, but reading aloud Emily Dickinson. Seeing him shake his head in wonder.
Reciting poetry is Jane’s party trick. The students, a moment ago disappointed to see her walk in after all, scuttling their half-formed fantasies to smoke pot and throw a Frisbee around the well-kept Green, look up. They watch her eyes wander over their faces. Of course, she is not really addressing them: she speaks to Charley, wherever he is.
“I could not die— with You,” Jane says. She pictures the line on the page. She visualizes Dickinson’s dashes, so much stranger in manuscript: there, the lengths vary. Some dashes go up, some down; some look like raised swords. She pictures the uppercase Y of “You.” Months later, she will think of this poem as she, neither Charley’s wife nor widow, sits with bowed head at his funeral, in the back row.
Composing herself. Recomposing herself.