Stopping Distance, by David Means

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[Story]

Stopping Distance

Photographs by Tabitha Soren from her Surface Tension series, which appeared in Trace, a book published in 2019 by Yoffy Press. Soren’s work is on view at the Mills College Art Museum, in Oakland, California

[Story]

Stopping Distance

Adjust

grief and time

Grief takes as long as it wants, in various formations, and doesn’t follow rules the way we’d like to think it does. And for God’s sake, it doesn’t pass through stages. Forget stages, I hate that idea, she said to her friend Valery, who had suggested she try attending a bereavement group. They were walking together on a cloudy afternoon, following a path along the river, with the train tracks up the hill to their right and the river, gray and seething in the fall wind, to their left. Valery, who had gone through a number of steps to get sober and had attended such group meetings with ritualistic, almost religious fervor, seemed absurdly small in her devotion to the therapeutic nature of storytelling, of confession.

across the threshold

In the group there was a man who lost his teenage daughter two years ago, chasing after a Frisbee into the road. It’s a cliché and we warn and warn but that’s how it happened, he said. It was a warm July afternoon and I was out back—this was my old house, the one I sold last year—on the deck doing some work and she and her friends were up front, playing, and I could hear them laughing, not giggling but teenage laughs, hoots, shouts, stuff like that. It was a sound I could’ve listened to forever until that day, and now, of course, I can’t stand it. Hearing teenage kids kills me now, he said, and then there was a crushing silence as the group members leaned forward, faces in hands, waiting the expected few seconds for what they knew was coming, the choke of it, the restrictive collapse into sobs. It didn’t matter that two years had passed for this man because for a split second—with the gurgle of the coffeemaker on the table behind them—those sounds were in the here and now, as he put it when he got his speaking voice back, clearing his throat, his words full of sorrow. His name was Cal and she’d later learn that he lived in Westchester, in Bedford to be exact, in a house in the wooded countryside along a curvy road, with split rail fences and a white gravel drive. Later she’d sit alongside him in the car outside his house on a clear winter night, with the stars bright overhead and snow windblown across the road, and they’d hear in the music on the radio—something by Chopin, one of the nocturnes, the C-sharp minor, sad and quiet yet somehow uplifting and joyous too—a reflection of their mutual conditions. Something in the formal way he held the steering wheel high, lightly, wiggling his fingers, told her that he would turn and kiss her, and then he’d wait a few seconds and drive up to the house, to delay the weight that would come when they crossed the threshold. Perhaps she knew in the car that he’d gallantly let her go ahead of him, pushing the door, opening his palms, and tossing his fingers into the air as if to say “after me,” and then he’d come in with the rush of cold air—there was woodsmoke along with the smell of pinesap—and they’d stand awkwardly for a moment. A sprig of mistletoe would be hanging from a light fixture in the foyer. He’d look up at it and grimace. Ignore that, he’d say, and he did say.

the lawyer

His daughter’s name was Drew—like Drew Barrymore, he told them—and he had been unable to say it for over a year, through a bitter divorce and the fury of guilt, until finally one afternoon at the country club, sitting with friends watching kids splash one another in the pool, listening to the laughter, he said her name, Drew, and then said it again. The club didn’t want him as a member anymore, not only because he’d been negligent in attending social gatherings, avoided serving on any committees, and refused to golf, but mainly because he’d become a sad sack who had once been a facilitator, a gregarious guy who could talk about anything to anyone in a friendly manner, a person who, as they used to say, got things done and was well liked. Now he was an isolate, quiet and brusque, shrouded in sorrow. He knew it. The members of the club knew it. Yeah, he said, brusque is the word I’d use. I snapped when I felt like snapping. I felt, and I still feel, he said to the group, that the structures around my everyday actions, the small, silly fucking rules that make up everyday decorum for the living, polite inquisitions about how it’s going, small gestures like a handshake or a pat on the back or whatever, simply no longer mattered. So I just did what I wanted to do, and I still do, when I wanted to do it and when I want to do it, and I said what I wanted to say when I wanted to say it, and still do, in honor of Drew, who would’ve fucking liked seeing me become a kind of rebel, a punk, he said. And then, after someone else had a turn to speak, he put his hands out and added that he meant to say that he often felt he should approach the world as his daughter had approached it, from an angry fifteen-year-old’s vantage. Then he sobbed, and the sob passed gently from one to the other and they all admitted—clutching coffee cups, rubbing their faces—that they were totally helpless, even this far along. For a moment there was a communal flash of grace in the silence, just before someone moaned, or sniffed, or coughed—and the cars outside passed with a judgmental shush that made everyone in the group aware that inside those cars, people were passing with the bitter solace and mindlessness of those who do not know, who have not shared this kind of loss, and in doing so, in passing, were casting a judgment on those inside the church basement, in the chairs, and it was manifested in the sound the tires made as they rotated through the slush.

group

Grief comes unevenly, not only in relation to the way the bereaved suffers, unique to each personality, but also in relation to the time through which the pain moves, so that for some, a year is more than enough time, or at least adequate, to return to a semblance of normalcy, whereas for others a year is a blip, a flick, a blink, not enough. Other factors—and they all admitted this, talked about it—include the precise manner of your loss, the horrific but necessary circumstances examined over and over again. Jodi, who lost her daughter five years ago in a car crash on the Merritt Parkway, talked obsessively about the need for guardrails on that stretch, about the dangerous nature of decorative trees along the roadside, and, mostly, about the television newscast, the way the information (not news, she cried) had been reported (and I watched, she said, I had to see it, I didn’t believe it), the smirk on the announcer’s mouth, a man named Greg Gunwald, a square-jawed sportscaster who sat in for the news that night, she said. A man who saw life as a matter of scores, of yards gained and all of that. I could hear it in the way he said, Four teenagers were killed tonight, stressing the word four and then putting an even heavier stress on the word horrific, the same way he’d stress the word terrific, as in the way he’d say the Yankees had a terrific comeback.

sailing

Howard lost his son, Andy, in a boating accident, a freak accident, he said again and again, always working in the word freak, making sure it was clear that it had been a bright, sunny day on the river near Croton, that little inlet, and that his son had been a highly proficient sailor. The kid had wild golden hair (he said another time, passing the photo around), and then they had waited for the catch in his throat—two years had passed for him too—but instead his voice grew shrill. He was coming about in high winds, maybe trying a chicken jibe. It was that simple, he said. According to his friend in the boat, he even announced it, sticking with proper protocol. Prepare to come about, he said, and his friends in the boat ducked but he didn’t duck low enough and the boom knocked him out of the boat. (It went unspoken, but each one of them in the circle thought about the currents of the river, the tidal complexity of the salt water coming up from the sea, and they all thought about the yearly accidents, the canoes tipped, or those who decided to take a dip unaware of the dangers.) A full sail. The luff along the edges, the abundance of wind along the reach of the river, the arch and tip of the boat in relation to the air and the water; a boy, one hand on his tiller, the other on the rope, ducking down but not far enough.

first date

That’s the thing about Howard, Cal said in the car on their first official date, after a movie in Mount Pleasant. It’s not that I begrudge him the fact that he struggles. It’s the way we all just sort of sit there and let him talk about that kid sailing over and over. I guess what I mean to say, Cal continued, his tone taking on an officious air because he was a lawyer and part of his job was to speak this way, to make opening statements. What I mean to say is I think each of us are inclined to see only into our own grief, so we have to work, use up energy, to move away from our own grief into the grief of others—I mean beyond our trigger mechanisms, oh God, sometimes I hate that phrase—and with Howard it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. They were sitting together on the couch in his living room. He stood up, said excuse me, and left her alone for a moment. On the side table next to the couch was a framed photograph of his ex-wife: short, blond, prim, her slim legs in riding breeches, holding a crop, her nose flat, bent slightly to one side in a way that gave her a ragged edge that was all the more attractive, gazing directly at the camera with a joyous aggression, as if daring the future to send her a tragedy. Over her, the sky was richly blue, with the negligent brilliance of another perfect Westchester afternoon. Turning away from the photo, she looked out at the falling snow whirling into the window light. From the kitchen came the clink of ice in glasses, the tap of a bottle against glass, a sound that seemed lonely and isolated until he came out with the drinks, one in each hand, hoisting them gently. He was a tall man, with narrow hips and wide shoulders and premature salt-and-pepper hair cut in layers sweeping away from his high brow. He moved with a tentativeness she appreciated, and when he spoke it was in his voice too, something that—she would much later come to appreciate—went beyond his grief into the natural ease, a part of himself that had been there before his loss.

 

coping

The way she had coped in the early days—she explained to the group on a cold night in December—was to walk around and imagine her son alongside her, and to speak to him about things as if he were in bodily form, still alive, walking through town, past the pizza parlor, turning right at the corner, past Edward Hopper’s house, telling him about how she had been a good dancer back in the Seventies, when she would do the disco steps, the line actions, with the mirror ball slicing light into fragments, the entire dance floor becoming sequined with light, and her imaginary son would laugh and tease her and call her old and she’d lift her chin, feeling her cheeks tight, too thin, and she’d laugh and then someone, across the street or approaching ahead, would give her the odd look that came from seeing someone talking to the empty air, and she’d feel anger, not shame. On occasion she lashed out, saying, What are you looking at, fucker? I lost my son. Other times she’d hold the anger in and feel her face flush and an ache along her lower back, tingling up into her shoulders. It was physical, she told Cal, later. They’d share that together. He’d take her across the yard and into the grove of oaks, a windbreak, the remains of the farm that had been on his land years ago, and he’d put his hands to his sides and look up at the stars and confess that he had done the same thing, not so long ago, in Mount Kisco, walking along and conversing with his son, talking to him about copyright, about the nature of the Constitution, about his hope that he’d go to law school, follow in the family footsteps.

group

During those soft, sudden moments of quiet, the sadness seemed pure and mutual between the group members. Someone would say something and then there would be a gasp, an intake of breath, and then around it a silence that seemed stricken—and it was, it was—with a physical anguish so strong it broke apart differences, the bitterness that often went with a story that was told, as the others took it and reflected upon it and then tried and failed to keep it away from their own stories. Then, for what seemed to be a fleeting few seconds, with the thumping of the steam pipes, they’d become aware that they were simply a small group of folks gathered on old folding chairs in a church along the road, not far from the river, with the vaulted stone overhead and, above the arches, in the bell tower, the cast-iron bell that was waiting to be rung, the clapper held in position, the rope hanging limp, plunging down through a hole above the entryway, to be pulled by a church elder or usher during the service, the bell ringing outside, muffled and distant, as the rope slipped up through the hole and then, when it was high enough, the elder reaching up to pull it again, smiling at the pleasure of it like a kid in a schoolyard.

At other times there’d be a trite, acidic taste to the words that were spoken, and each of them would retreat inward and close in on the fact that their own grief was integrated into the individual stories of those who were now gone. Then someone would become so overwhelmed by bitterness, unable to hold back, the barrier of civility slipping away, that they’d strike out with a harsh comment, beyond the pale, as she had done early on during their second meeting when a woman named Ruth went on and on and on about an app called JDate, about trying to find a man who would understand that she was a mother who would never be a mother again. Without thinking, she had looked at Ruth and said, You’re dating the dead. That’s what you’re doing.

skiing

We were skiing in Vermont with several friends, renting a place called the Bates Mansion, having a wonderful time, she told the group one night. It was bitter cold and I drove Andrew up there in the evening, after school. The air was crystal clear and there was a full moon and we were watching the road, and when we got there we couldn’t make it up the driveway because of ice, and he got out and said he’d take care of it. He said that. He said, I’ll take care of it, Mom, and he got out of the car and grabbed the rear bumper and began to push, and I was steering the wheel back and forth, spinning the tires, and when I made it up the hill he came running around in front of the car and started dancing with his arms over his head, victorious, and I got out and gave him a hug and we just stood there for a few seconds, our breath puffing clouds, and it was silent and cold and snowing. The two of us on a bitter cold winter night, she said. It was the first time he said something like that to me, and I remember thinking to myself that he would say that to me again and again as I got older, as I needed him in different ways, as he got more and more mature, and with him gone it’s like something that was meant to be, I mean that was really meant to be, isn’t going to be, she said. The group remained quiet, and Cal, next to her, put his hand gently on her hand and lifted it away, touched her once, not in a creepy way, just quickly with reassurance, and around them in the basement was the purest sort of silence, until the great iron pipes of the church’s heating system gave a thud and the radiators under the basement windows—leaking cold from the street—shuddered and hissed.

It was the skiing that brought them together, the pure coincidence of a commonality between their two losses, as they’d see it, the miraculous nature of the truth as it related to the stories they told themselves. That’s how it was. Out of the blue, two souls lost in some woods come upon each other and—at a great distance, barely visible, just silhouettes—recognize something familiar, a slight limp in the gait, the shape of a head, and when they get close enough, before they speak, they begin to laugh because they were old college roommates, or had worked in the same office in Chicago years ago. A magical feeling began to appear at the meetings, beyond conspiracy, beyond luck, that foretold some aspect of existence, sealing a bond that had not existed before the chance encounter. After she mentioned skiing in Vermont he waited a few meetings before he mentioned his own experience, and he kept it vague, just said they used to go skiing and then he got choked up and couldn’t speak. (Much later he’d see that in the withholding he had found some hope; he had foreseen the moment when he would share it with her away from the others, passing it like a chalice, sealing the bond that was forming, and he knew it was only an imagined relationship that had formed, glancing over at her, catching a glimpse of her lovely face: narrow and austere with thin, pale lips and a high freckled brow that seemed enhanced by the way her hair, a brown so deep it was almost red, was pulled back, charged with winter static, loose and curling around her ears, which, when he got close to her during coffee time, looked small, delicate, shell-like when she leaned forward to take a cup, exposing to him for the first time, as the collar of her shirt tightened against it, the long, delicate elegance of her neck.)

the red hat

I can’t tell you, he’d say later. I can’t tell you what I was feeling when I heard you talk about skiing, about your boy pushing the car in the driveway, because we used to take my daughter skiing in Vermont, too, and I remember when I drove them up there, same kind of thing, late at night after a meeting in the city, moon in the sky, and my little girl was asleep in the back—this was when our marriage seemed strong, tight, good—and there was that feeling, I mean I knew I’d remember that moment forever and look back at it. I have the mind of an attorney, I’ll admit that much, and it seemed to me, I mean it seems to me now too, that it was evidence that the world was right, and so when I go back to it now, I mean like you did that night, I was thinking, Carol, when you were speaking, that I feel doubly betrayed—not only by the memory itself, and what it once meant to me, but by the fact that I actually put it in some sort of mental file and told myself at that time that it was an evidentiary moment, a moment that proved something, proved I was a good father in a good life in a good car driving a moonlit wintery road in Vermont—and now I see that it proved nothing, he said. They were at a restaurant called The Red Hat, seated outside on the patio, overlooking the river, thirty miles from his house and it was midsummer, and the candles flickered in a warm breeze off the water, and Manhattan twenty miles downstream a quivering glob of light in the heat past the pearled beads of the bridge, and the subject had risen up out of the small talk, out of the easeful laughter, and it made that moment—she’d think much later—somehow even more profound, something they’d both remember as formative.

drives

Late in the winter they began to meet outside the church after meetings, taking long drives north along Route 9D, following the road along the river until the Bear Mountain Bridge appeared, brightly lit, with small brick shanties holding the ends of its cables, desolate and empty as they crossed it, circling around the traffic circle to the Bear Mountain Lodge, where a few cars were parked close to the building but the rest of the parking lot, vast, white with salt, stood empty. He’d slow as they passed the lodge and they’d look up at the dark windows and think, both of them, about lovers in bed, resting in postcoital slumber, sleeping deeply after the exhilaration of touch. (Later they’d share this impression, looking back.) They barely spoke during these drives. They weren’t on a date. I don’t feel like going home yet, she’d say on the sidewalk outside the church, and he’d offer her a drive and they’d go. At Bear Mountain he’d drive to the far end of the parking lot, turn the engine off, and they’d sit and listen to music—classical sometimes, or jazz—and then he’d reach over and touch her shoulder and pull her toward him and kiss her, running his hands up into her hair and around her collar, and he’d smell her and she’d smell him, both inside the protective sense that came from the car cooling down, the leather seats under her wool skirt, the bunch of her stockings around her toes, the sense of her breasts inside her bra, her fingers around his thigh, and then they’d push away from each other and sit back, veering instantly into their own grief, feeling a foolish pleasure in the routine, aware of the immensity of their guilt, the rush of it overpowering, but also aware—they’d both later think—that these drives were part of something larger, a process that included the patrol car that appeared each time, the same cop most likely, swinging his flashlight at them, interrupting their solitude, making them feel like a couple of teenage kids.

the eros of grief

The fuzz of erotic energy was the strange part. He had lost a daughter and she had lost a son, and somehow those two facts began to form a pattern, a logos. What are the odds of two successful people, two divorcés, two relatively attractive people sitting next to each other in a bereavement group in the basement of a church in Westchester, feeling—as they listened and spoke, as the group descended into a unified sensation of pure loss that, in those moments after someone spoke, also felt like grace, like a sensation of free fall, the sudden jolt of a plane in the middle of a transatlantic flight—a sensual awareness of each other as they sat in the hard chairs, shifting haunches, lifting hands to their cheeks, brushing his five o’clock shadow with the bottom of his palm (she saw him do it out of the corner of her eye), or lifting her chest to take a deep breath and, in doing so, allowing him a glimpse? What were the odds of two people, lonely and lost, coming up to each other during a coffee break and gently, without provocation, as a kind of mutual gesture, lifting their cups as if in a toast, both of them about to sip at the same time, facing each other, and in the uplifting of their hands and the tension that had formed, sloshing the hot coffee onto the floor at the same time? He had a stylized ungainliness that reminded her of Jimmy Stewart, with a voice to match, an aw-shucks way of disregarding his own seriousness while making himself seem, somehow, even more serious. His grief was serious but he wasn’t all that serious, he seemed to be saying with his gestures, sipping and leaning back slightly as he spoke. He asked her where she lived and she told him, and he admitted he’d never been to that side of the river, not once in all his years, except a few times when they drove north on the Thruway, and when she asked him where he lived he said not far, in Bedford.

geography

Each one of them talked about moving out, changing jobs, shifting their footing. He spoke about moving to Aspen, not only to ski, if he could ever get himself to do it again, but just to be in the crisp mountain air near the edge of the atmosphere, closer to the void of space, the open languor of stars, pristine and pure, sunk deep in a darkness that wasn’t darkness at all but a lack of material. In Aspen I might feel something new. Another time he talked about moving back to his hometown in Pennsylvania, where it would at least look okay to remain silent, to avoid too much, too much, too much, he said while the group waited for him to continue. That night the windows were open and it was a warm spring evening, a faint smell of bloom in the air. I could be reticent. Everyone’s reticent out there, so I wouldn’t stand out. Then he talked about the austere farmhouse his father and mother had, like something from the painting of the farmer and his wife and the pitchfork, joined in holy stoic matrimony against the elemental facts of life, pure and clean, not hidden but not up-front. While the others in the group begin to shift uncomfortably, he went on to speak about the way certain brutalities might be faced by not facing them. In another meeting she talked about moving upstate, to a town called Hudson, which was going through a revival, where everyone was creative and trying to find an orderly but fake (she said fake) sense of authenticity. Or better yet, she went on, one of those abandoned upstate towns where she could walk as a stranger and strike up friendly banter from time to time, when she felt like it, a town where the streets had lost their grandeur and would mirror her own sense of loss, where houses sat plump and stately but also rotting and half-gone, and then she went silent while everyone in the group, each one of them, thought about the ideal place where everyone was alive and well.

A few nights later, on a drive through the countryside near his house, she said, I feel just the opposite of what I said in the meeting the other night. There simply isn’t a place in the world where I’d feel better. If I see a picket fence I think about the backyard, and if I think about the backyard I think about the way he used to make a run at the pool, one of those plastic wading pools, and how I’d tell him to stop and he’d run anyway, making a sliding drive into the water. If I lived in Hudson—I mean it’s like one long street going down a hill—I’d still see the river and think about him that way. That night he drove along the reservoir and they looked out at the water and he told her that the original town of Katonah, the first one, was somewhere beneath the water out there, and they both had the same thought: perhaps that was the place to go live again, and then one of them said it and the other said she was thinking the same thing, and instead of crying they both laughed and then he was making fun of the idea, saying, Yeah, let’s go live down there. Better yet, we’ll blow up the dam and live in whatever’s left, and then they stopped at a diner, pale-pink neon tubes around a chrome formation, and had predawn pancakes and coffee together, watching the first frills of light around the trees across the road, feeling at that moment secluded and warm in the booth.

stopping distance

A year later, when they were skiing in Vermont, he told her about his idea for a group called Stopping Distance. Right after the accident, a part of him, the attorney part, wanted to manifest his grief in some active way, to make a formation out of his loss and to transform the world. So I was thinking of starting a group, or a web page, about fast drivers in relation to pedestrians. You could put in a speed and then find out your stopping distance, because at that time I was totally obsessed with the fact that the car that hit her was going too fast, and that if only the kid driving had been going slower he would’ve stopped just before he hit her. I kept thinking, over and over, stopping distance, and for a week or so, I mean when I was totally glazed over in my sadness, not even close to admitting what had happened, it seemed to make total sense, he said. They were on the lift, almost to the top, in the sudden, clear cold of high altitude, and he felt relieved to leave the bar, to feel his skis touch the ice as the chair swung away behind. Just the icy upper reaches—shrouded in low fog—and the steep initial drop of the slope. He split off at the black diamond while she stayed on the blue trail in a parting that seemed to her, in those initial seconds, before she could think, while he was swooping away into the steep drop-off, with the wildly gorgeous vista opening up around them, to be deeply meaningful. By the time she got to the bottom, sweaty and tired, her ankles aching in the tight bindings, his words were gone, until he appeared a few minutes later, whooping and hissing down out of the trees, emerging suddenly, a crystalline dry shush in his bright-blue ski jacket, letting the poles dangle at his sides, heading straight at her at top speed before cutting into a long, wide snowplow stop that sprayed a fantail of snow into the air and, with wonderful precision, swept along beside her with his face wet and pink, and his eyes, when he pulled off his goggles, were startling, glinting gray, as he leaned over for a kiss. That’s what I mean by stopping distance, he said. It was right then, she’d later think, that she had felt a perfect sense of the destiny of their lives: he would go one way, down the harder course, and she would go the slightly easier path, along the side of the mountain and down an old logging road—but in the end he would emerge, come to a slide alongside her, and they’d kiss and feel alive in a way that was regenerative and, she thought, full of grace. On the way to the lodge, holding her skis, she was aware that she was putting everything into a single symbolic basket, making way too much of the fact that on the way down the hill, in the exhilaration of movement, in her concentration on her legwork, she had forgotten to think about anything at all except reaching the bottom without a spill.

recourse

When you’re living in a certain kind of loss, the only recourse is to look at events as loaded with symbolic portent, as full of signs and indicators pointing a way out of loss, or to the fact that the loss might never go away; it’s that or the sad but pure darkness and depression of no meaning at all. One way or the other, at a sway of extremes so that suddenly, say, in the middle of a dinner party, with the sparkle of light on the silver—polished that afternoon, the grimy gray of the paste drying to white and then rubbed carefully away to reveal the mirrored shine—the flicker of candlelight and the warmth of the faces can at one moment seem joyful and hopeful, and then, a second later, seem utterly trite and absurd, as a guest laughs and lifts his fork to make a point. Later she’d have to sort it out, do her best to see what meant what and how much of her life at that time—the dates with Cal, the dinners, the meetings at the church and her own work at the school, delegating and going through the motions of being principal, examining test scores, meeting with the superintendent, managing the teaching schedules—had been done with intent, looked at with meaning, and how much of it had been lost in the wash of pain, subsumed, cast away. It was important, she’d later feel, to look back and establish patterns, to trace the complex paths that had somehow led to stability, to the grace of a life with pain but also with love.

One afternoon, moving around the kitchen, preparing a roast for dinner, listening to the television set in the den where Cal was watching a football game, feeling a settled calm of domesticity, looking out the window at the clouds gathering over the trees, wintry, tinged with a blush of amber around the edges, she felt her sadness as it seemed to fall forever into the placid standstill of the moment and stay there. It was a brief, fleeting sensation. Then there was a jocular shout from the den, football-related, and she glanced back out the window and remembered, years back, watching her son as he played in the yard, swinging a stick around, his body small and isolated as he made jousting gestures in the air, moving gallantly in the purity of his playfulness at that moment, a moment she had known, even then, that day—whenever it was, she couldn’t really recall—she would file away and remember forever, just as she, on occasion, would go back to that moment in the yard and the pool, his skin glistening seal-wet, and countless other moments that now felt catalogued, sorted out, slightly stiff around the edges, like index cards that had been fingered soft in the corners, and when she left the sink and went to the den to sit with Cal, holding his hand, she stayed silent, let him remain in the present moment, hooting and shouting at the plays, leaning forward. On the screen the college players were hugging one another, jumping up and down, patting rear ends, and pointing fingers at the sky. When the replay came, she watched the quarterback fall back, protected, back farther, his arm cocked and the ball resting in his hand until he unleashed the pass, which arched high into the stadium lights and found a pair of outstretched arms. She watched as the receiver ran in slow motion with the ball cradled into the end zone, lifting it to the heavens as if making an offering, and then collapsed onto his knees. He was crossing himself as she turned and went back into the kitchen.

days

They moved through days joined by the loss, talking about it obsessively, exchanging intimate details. He told her about the afternoon light coming through the trees as he sat in the backyard in a lawn chair that day, listening to the kids playing out front, and then the odd, rubbery, blunt, sudden sound just before—microseconds, really, but in mental replay, long and drawn out—the screech of car tires on the summer-hot pavement. She retold the story about the trip to Vermont, seeing her son in the driveway; not so much narrative details—outside of the group setting at the church she seemed to stay away from anything resembling a story—but small things, the way he liked to tie his shoes in a double knot, patting the top of the shoes before standing up again, and the stench of his lacrosse gear that couldn’t be washed away (he pieced together these fragments into an image of a young kid who had many superstitions when it came to sports, refusing to wash his gear, tying his shoes in particular knots, wrapping his sticks with tape in a certain way, tying up his own nets to his own specifications). He was a star athlete. His name was Ross. He seemed destined for greatness. He was only fifteen, but the details she gave made him seem older and wiser, a kid who had braced himself and matured to adulthood during a horrible divorce, a fatherless kid—she refused to talk at all about her ex-husband—who had to make do. She talked of his broad shoulders and the way he stood straight, with a kind of dignity. Everything she said solidified his view of the boy.

the move

She moved to his house in Westchester later that year, packing up her stuff, moving around her son’s old room, which she hadn’t touched since the accident, feeling a resolve, like an iron bar, plunged into her gut, sitting in the car one last time, looking across the driveway at the house and then at the river, and felt the relief of geographic relocation, having left at least a few of the physical reminders behind. He would drift out to the yard from time to time. She’d look out and see him there, standing alone, looking upward, not so much a ghost or an apparition but a clear memory, something she knew she was creating, pushing his image out there amid the pines that had been denuded in the last big storm, many of the long branches twisted off. At that point, for some reason, her grief seemed cheap, like a bad plot in a bad movie, one more thing that Providence had invented to make the world seem brittle and thin. These appearances were as real as the trees in the wind, as real as the walls of the house. He ran around with his stick, throwing the ball at the elastic net, catching it with a twist of his wrist and throwing it back, stopping once to tie his shoes, patting them, and then, with his shoulders straight, glancing back at the house as if he knew she was watching, and it seemed he continued like that for an hour while she stood at the sink, looking out, she told Cal one afternoon. He nodded and gave her a knowing look, and between them, without a word being spoken, a vapor, an ectoplasm of assurance seemed to form, because this, too, was another aspect of their bond, that they could share these crazy intimacies, claim they were true, without shame. He received her grief and she received his, in whatever form it took.

the story of her mother

Her mother, Ella, had lived alone with her own loss for the last twenty years of her life, in a little house in Cleveland, not far from the airport. She had taken the BRT into the city center to work at a clothing store, and then got a job at an airport newsstand a few years later, ringing up candy bars and bottles of water and newspapers and magazines. Ella had lived in Cleveland most of her life, as had her father, also a Hungarian immigrant who had joined the Navy when he was sixteen, forged his documents, and had come back with a tattoo on his arm and an edge that needed drink.

What do you want to work there for? she had asked her mother one afternoon, sitting in the little kitchen—warm, outdated, with a big white stove and linoleum floor with a pattern of little flowers worn away in two spots close to the sink. A small window over the sink opened to a view of the back parking lot of a busy tavern, where night and day people seemed to linger and smoke and break bottles and, on occasion, usually at night, fight. When her father built the house, the parking lot had been—her mother liked to point out each time she visited, each time she looked out the back screen door—an open field. After arriving from Hungary, her father had built the house by hand, using a kit that was first delivered by railroad and then by truck, lifting the boards, which were printed with numbers. Everything but the brick and mortar and the plumbing, the fixtures, and the stove, he liked to point out, and her mother liked to repeat the story. (That’s how we salvage the past, locating the small stories and passing them carefully into the future. Always with the same reverent tone, she thought. But the story of my loss isn’t something I want to pass on. The only thing I can pass is the silence.) All that—the memory of that kitchen in Cleveland and those conversations—was in the past, before her mother died and then, a few years later, her son, but she thought of those particular days—the warmth of the kitchen, the exact smell of the floor wax, something called Future, and then she thought about how her mother’s death had, for a while, opened a sense of taking a step forward in the timeline, but then her son died and reconfigured the order, destabilized everything, and in this destabilized state she began to understand her mother in a different way, to see that she, too, had found a way to continue on after her father’s sudden death—a job at the airport, an arena of transition, fixed in place behind the counter while others moved around her, taking pleasure in the smallest of tasks, neatening stacks of newspapers, listening to the conversations of others.

I don’t mind being out there at the airport, her mother said. For one thing, it gives me something to do, and I need to keep busy, and the money helps, and best of all I get to talk to people, to see them as they arrive, thirsty, or in need of a sugar boost. Or they buy one kind of magazine when they’re leaving for a flight, and usually buy a newspaper when they arrive. That kind of thing, she said. The sad thing, though, she said another day, is when I go to get something to eat and see an old couple, dressed up to the nines for a trip, bags sitting there, not speaking at all, just not talking, and then I want to shake them and say, Speak now, when you can, because there’s gonna be a day when you’ll wish you’d talked more, or gotten out of your marriage in the first place. There were things you could remember forever about your parents, about those who were gone, she thought, remembering her mother. All she could do was imagine her mother, a prim, tidy, older woman with perfect skin—no sun, not a bit of sun, not even once in her life, she liked to claim—that looked powdery even when it wasn’t powdered, and pale-blue eyes, reaching for a candy bar or a bottle of water, perfectly content, or so she claimed, to be working amid the hubbub. The end of life, whatever you’re doing near the end, is what seems to define you, someone named Jill in the group said one night, speaking in her eastern seaboard, blue-blooded voice, mimicking Katharine Hepburn, annoyingly precise.

the natural dead

Grief over the natural death of an older person had a different flavor, of course. Everyone knew that, or thought they did. That’s another thing: those who have not had a loss so deep and so tragic can only imagine what it’s like, and when they try to imagine, for a fleeting second or two, they do so with a bit of a freakish, superstitious avoidance maneuver, because to go too close to trying to imagine it might be to jinx something so that it becomes a reality of some kind, if not a material reality, an imagined reality. It just can’t be done. Those in the group who talked of others often spoke judgmentally of those who had not experienced such pain, as a way of getting a firm footing on the outcrop of their loss. They don’t want to think about it. But even when they try, they really don’t, someone in the group once said. Perhaps it was Jill, who wore black wool skirts and wonderful shoes, designer shoes with blood-red soles and stoic black blouses and, on one occasion, a Jackie Kennedy?style veil. Jill’s little boy—from what could be pieced together—had gone through a long fight with cancer, starting at age nine, stretching year after year into his late teens. The anger Jill brought to the group had to be respected and channeled gently away. They listened and nodded, made polite comments about how well she articulated her pain. The men in the group, at least outwardly, in their gestures, seemed better equipped to understand her rage, the desire to lash out at those who just didn’t, and would never, ever, ever, get it. They pounded fists into fists and nodded in agreement and said they could totally understand. I’ve wanted to punch a doctor myself, Cal said, and then he blushed, spreading his palms on his knees, leaning forward and adding, but of course I wouldn’t. I’d get hold of myself. I’d remind myself of the legal consequences, of course, but I’d also tell myself that they have nothing to do with it, and can’t get it, and that I have to understand that fact, I mean really understand it, or it will eat me up. (He mentioned his Stopping Distance project later in that same meeting.) Whereas most of the women resorted to a series of soft touches, to verbal diversion techniques (You shouldn’t even think about how other people might be feeling), and to an agreement, silent and unspoken but visible in their eyes, in their aversion to what the men had said, that at times all you can do is say “now now, now now,” and hug and hold one another as you release yourself into the physicality of grief.

the wedding

The wedding would take place at a church Cal knew in Garrison, not far from Cold Spring, a small chapel atop a stone outcrop that he had spotted one morning from the train, on the way up to file a claim at the federal bankruptcy court in Poughkeepsie. Seen from the train window, the chapel seemed to float above the river. They would settle into a comfortable arrangement, move away from his house in Westchester, find a place new and apart from both of their old lives where they could settle into their twilight years, arranging life around their mutual loss, which would, by that time, be a powerful but manageable pain in the field of memory. He’d retire from his law firm in the city, manage his stocks on a computer screen as a hobby, and get up for coffee in late afternoon. There would be the years of wearing slippers into the afternoon, of moving around the house in a leisurely manner, of making small decisions as if they were big, paging through the Metropolitan Opera brochure, planning the season, picking La Bohème and Boris Godunov, looking forward to the train ride into Grand Central, the cab over to Lincoln Center. Ahead, they would sense, was the end of the line, a terminus of sorts, so the days would compress, tighten, and there would be a sense of urgency in the way they filled the calendar, a sense of a desire to get as much in while the going was good—she liked to say—of making use of time in a way that was respectful, zeroing in on the abundance of each moment, stopping, from time to time, alone, in the later afternoons, to simply hold each other in the living room, establishing the kind of intense eye contact that occurred between older people, who, after looking back, would make an effort to home in on the present. Then, on some particular afternoon she would feel it between them, the large, abstract silence that was, they both knew, a formation around the unspoken loss, which was not so much a black hole—as she imagined it—as a black speck, whatever was left when enough was forgotten. (Because, as someone said one night in the group, You can’t fully remember pain. Pain comes and goes. Physical pain, most of all, but mental pain, too, otherwise you’d never go on. If you remembered what it was like to give birth, if you could recall that pain with acuteness, you’d never do it again, is what I think, someone had said.)

bindings

And it did turn out that way, for the most part, although a few years after he had resigned from the firm they moved west to a small house in Pennsylvania, not far from the Delaware Water Gap, up on a ridge overlooking the valley, far away from the Hudson River, which had somehow, they admitted, united them symbolically and proved too much to bear, a reminder in too many ways, couched in two different memories, his and hers, but still flowing through the pain. His father had had a hardware business in Stroudsburg, and he went to the shop in the mornings and helped out, sharpening lawn mower blades (at least that was one thing he mentioned doing), holding the metal against the spinning sharpening stone, blowing the dust off, running his thumb along the edge, imagining all the grass it would cut on summer afternoons. For that was another part of it, finding release in the minutiae of daily life, and both of them had longed to get away from what had been the complexity of the city, to find a new ritual. He screened windows, running the rubber band into the groove with a roller, and moved around the shop while his father—unfashionably stoic, hunched over in chronic pain from his arthritic neck, having survived the Depression on a farm in Bismarck, North Dakota—worked at the register.

One afternoon, shortly after his father went into the hospital with congestive heart failure (What’s failing? Nothing’s goddamn failing, his father had said, frustrated), Cal sat in the back of the store, amid the goods, with the pale midafternoon light coming through the front window, down across the old wooden aisles, barely lit, the feeble neon overhead fixtures long burned out, and began to cry for the first time in three years, feeling the waves of anguish arrive, not in response to any precise stimulus or memory, but simply because of the way the light looked and the intense silence of the store, and he recalled, because he groped around, felt a need to find a source for his grief, to pin it to some particular image, his daughter in her ski gear, stiff in the nylon embrace, her face puffy, wet, and red—a baby face, the same face she had as a baby when he lifted her out of the bathtub—as she stood and waited while he adjusted the tension on her bindings, twisting the small screw. Right then, on the ski slope, he thought in the store, he had had a profound insight: to protect his daughter, the tension had to be exactly right, loose enough so that the skis would fly away under force but tight enough to sustain her on her run down the mountain, because she was a shaggy, youthful skier, loose in the joints, free, fearless, dangerously reckless in a spirited way. He would explain all of this to Carol later that night, in bed. I had to find something to make sense of it, he told her. Otherwise it was just another one of those waves that come more and more infrequently. Otherwise I was just this sad old man in the back of a hardware store crying like a fool. So I thought about the way she used to look when she came down to the bottom of the mountain, you know, suddenly appearing. She’d always ski the last run of the day, and she’d always take some back trail, and she’d take as much time as she could, until it was almost dark. And I’d always—and this happened three years in a row—wait for her and worry, worry and wait, and then she’d appear, he explained, and for the first time in three years they wept together, snow falling outside into the valley behind the house, and out there somewhere below, the Delaware River plunged through the ease of the gap.

That’s how it worked, he thought. You want nothing more than a straight line away from grief, to disassociate the story from geography, from landscape and the things in the landscape, the shrill morning call of some bird waking before sunrise, startling the early morning dusk, a kid with a skateboard, his feet as if glued, betraying physics as he skips with a jerk up a curbstone. All you want is a semblance of orderly structure in your progression back into the world, while others find it dubious that someone who has lost so much isn’t wallowing in the eternal loss, because the entire house, up on the ridge, overlooking the valley on that clear, cold winter night, seemed to be spinning into a whirlpool for a moment as they held each other in bed. Then, just as suddenly, it was over, and he went and turned on the late show, and they watched the opening monologue. You grant yourself the grace of a story, but then it goes away. People spin stories around your loss. The unimaginable is the most fearsome thing. In some small pocket, some primal recess of their minds, some dark little cave, is a place where the deepest fear rests, some assure themselves to feel better. Put it there, they say to themselves, and then they lean down and tie a shoelace on a little foot, or wipe a mouth, or kiss a forehead, or tuck a blanket under a chin, or remove a Band-Aid with a swift, urgent sweep and then laugh it away. Woe to the one who admits that those dark little places, the boxes—he thought the next afternoon, sorting nails, opening and closing the long, wooden drawers, enjoying the heft and the rattle—do not exist at all, because when you lose something dear it builds a box that you can’t imagine, he thought, and then a customer came in, the bell over the door tinkled, and he went back to moving through reality again, the floor creaking under his shoes, going to the register and saying hello to Marge Pierson, one of his father’s favorites, gaunt but still elegant, her eyes deep blue, a former beauty queen, a woman with her own sorrows, a woman who had lost her husband years back in a horrific car accident and still carried it with her somehow, in the scarf she wore around her neck, in the way she clutched her small purse, in the cut of her skirt over her bony hips.

Grief in prepackaged form, he thought, sweeping the back of the shop, thinking about a smart little piece he had seen on the news that morning about a woman who, as a way of overcoming her loss, had formed a fund for children like her daughter. Lilly’s Fund. The music began to swell beneath her voice halfway through, and then emerging onto the screen in soft focus was the face of a child, angelic, of course, with downy, windblown hair and eyes that were wide and blue and, of course, deeply innocent, with freckles around her perfect nose and then, before you could take that image in, they were back in a studio in New York, with the mother who was also somewhat angelic, her face seemingly free of makeup and startlingly assured as she explained that she had set up a fund not as a way to help herself through her loss but as a way to help other kids in the name of her daughter and to assure the world that no one else in the future would have to suffer such a loss. But at that point a shot of her hands appeared, just her hands, folded together in her lap, and he saw in the image of her fingers interlaced that the package she had created meant nothing outside of the context of the production itself, the ads that framed her story, and he thought, and told his wife later that night, that nothing could package grief, not really, not a fund, not anything like his idea, Stopping Distance, nothing at all. He said that and then stopped speaking, another of his non sequiturs arriving out of the blue as they read together in bed, leaning against the headboard side by side, and he said it and she nodded and remained silent, because to say something more—they both knew—would be to open the door to a particular dialogue that, for the most part, was better left unspoken.

What was inside that silence was the fact that the previous candor, the words spoken in group years back—not so long, really, but long enough to seem threadbare—had worked magic at that moment in their lives and was now unnecessary. He was speaking, changing the subject, of his old English professor at Princeton, a man named Shilling, who had taught them about James Joyce, about the idea of epiphany. He had us write our own, or at least attempt one, and I wrote mine about my father, something about him in the house—not that far away from this place here, Carol, and then he let his voice trail off as he remembered the old room, the thick plaster walls and the dormer and the small ledge by the window with the cushion where he used to sit, looking out at the rolling hills, and where he probably sat to write his epiphany on a cold winter night like this one. What had he written about? He couldn’t remember, not at all, just that it had some tragic overtone, and it was one of those moments that he thought he would hold forever, just as he thought he’d hold forever the sound of the contact of the car when it hit Drew, the silence that came before it happened and the sudden silence when it was over. But now, he admitted, it was gone. On the bed, he absently reached over and touched her shoulder lightly and let his hand rest there a moment while she read. Then he stood up and went to the window and looked out at a view that was, basically, with only a mile or two difference, the same one he had seen as a kid. The snow was moving through the wan moonlight, fuzzy and haloed, and beyond the trees at the edge of the yard he could see the faint outline of the Blue Mountains. Yes, the candor of those meetings, the frankness and intensity of confession, the sharing of pain from mouth to mouth had formed a basic physics that purged the details away, and the frank, open talk, it now seemed, had been predicated on the fact of forgetfulness couched, most certainly, in a sense of safety that came not only from their shared loss but also a shared sense that most of what they said, like everything else, would vaporize into the future, disappear. All that would remain—and all that does remain—is the structure of the process, the grace of mutual attention shared for a few hours, once a week, in that basement room that smelled of wood polish and floor wax, with the pipes banging and the sense that overhead was a sacred space, empty pews and unlit candles and stained glass windows—vivid by day, with scenes from the Book of Psalms, and a dove in the upper window with an olive branch in its beak—invisible at night aside from faint outlines of scenes fused with the dark outside.

Over the years there had been between them a sense of guilt that appeared from time to time, usually when they were alone in the car on rare visits back to New York, over the fact that somehow they had found joy and companionship and had been brought together by mutual loss, he thought at the window. But then he was turning away from the window and standing near the bed, and she looked up from her book, sensing that he had something important to say, and he was about to suggest that they fly to Aspen sometime soon, maybe in a couple of weeks, and ski dry powder. He’d go ahead and test his skills on a black diamond while she, if she wanted, he’d say—and he did say, a few seconds later—could, if she felt like it, take the slower back trails, and then he’d stand at the bottom of the mountain and wait for her to emerge, the sounds of her skis arriving first, that magical hiss, and then she would emerge with joy, and she’d swing around and spray powder in his face, and he’d let it melt on his cheeks until she reached up to brush it away.