Nora had not taken the call herself; surely there was some inane law against contacting an almost wife as opposed to an actual wife. Had she had the head to sit down and think about it, she’d go on and on about how the policy-driven institutions of this country were squelching its very vitality; ignoring the human side of any issue, erring on the side of caution, taking very important decisions based solely on the institution’s own risk as opposed to determining the best decision for the finest, most humane outcome. Nora and Peter could discuss things like this with the same wild animation one associates with mad Italians in a crowded neighborhood cafe’ the day after yet another government scandal or leading up to a big soccer match. Sometimes friends of friends would think they were arguing but they’d quickly be reassured that despite their very Nordic features, they were happily hot-blooded. Getting worked up was something they both relished, whether it was about getting more people to recycle in town or the importance of eating well, they discussed everything with passion.
Their passion in conversation was matched in the bedroom, beginning quietly and delicately, as one would envision the handling of raw silk upon its arrival to Venice, following months of heavy and dangerous travel on horseback. They would skillfully unwrap it, slowly, taking care not damage the precious contents inside. Then, ever-so-cautiously, they’d hold one fold and then another, examine it as if they’d never seen anything so exquisite, hold it up to the light, brush it against their skin and finally, when their eyes and touch had adjusted, unfurl it in all of its plush and luxurious glory. Always a different hue, each time a slightly different hand, each time the same slow and meticulous process of discovery. Just thinking of it turned her knees to water and she sank to the bottom of her cluttered closet, gripping the quilted bag they’d purchased just behind San Lorenzo on their last foray to Florence. She sat upon the mound of clothes he’d always insisted she sift through, giving away what was of no use to her and hanging the rest but she had never dreamed of giving away anything. There would always be another, exciting use for her clothes, each stitch of them. They would speak of her like photographs in a family album.
She struggled to regain control of her thoughts but instead just kept seeing his face propped up on one elbow above her, after having unfurled yet another bolt of raw silk. It must have been the third or fourth time that day (Why couldn’t she remember? She chastised herself, “third or fourth, which was it? How could you forget?”). He looked at her, eyes dancing from her mouth to her hair, to her bare skin and back to her glance, “they’re sending me to Syria. I leave tomorrow for New York and next week for Beirut. We’ll go in by ground.”
By his tone he might as well have said, “I’m going to get a glass of water. Can I get you anything?”. It took her a second to register the weight of his words. “They” was the UN agency for which he worked as a consultant; there’d been talk that they’d have to go in and file an assessment of the casualties for the new year statistics. She never would have thought it’d take place so soon. “they’re still fighting over there! What’s to assess? As soon as you turn in your report, it’ll be obsolete and there will be new numbers to tally. That’s if you get to file your report and don’t actually become part of it!”
With that, Nora got up, the feel and color of the silk they’d just ruffled already a distant memory. There was no use in pursuing this, she’d been there before and knew that all of the Peace and Conflict Resolution studies they’d both undertaken would lead to some missions she’d prefer not to think about. If she thought too hard about the UN, she’d soon be overwhelmed with that same negativity she had spent years shedding. All of her dreams about actually making a difference put together with all those who shared them, still could not stand up to the bureaucracy and cynicism of reality within those non-territorial walls.
No. Nora happily kept her expertise to her Mac in the comfort of their own home, with a cup of hot tea and one of her carefully selected playlists in the background. She’d write and lecture on Conflict Resolution but had no desire to go back to any seriously conflicted area of the world; frankly, she saw ample ground for her peaceful intervention in the gun-riddled, vitriolic landscape of their own country. And, besides, they were beginning a family; all of this sex used to be just for sheer gluttony but it now served a higher purpose which was affecting her in unexpected ways. It was still too early to tell if any of their attempts had been successful and yet she felt something in her had shifted: when had she ever cared if the placemats and napkins matched at the dinner table? When had she ever been afraid of anything or anyone? Now she did and she was.
She was afraid of car accidents and slipping on the ice and cried during holiday commercials. Once, not too long ago, they’d gone down to the Farmer’s Market on a Saturday. Weaving in and out of the stalls, going on and on with that characteristic verve about the season’s vegetables and what could be done with them, she’d temporarily lost sight of her Peter. Gone was her excitement over mixing that butternut squash with grated pecorino cheese, fresh pepper and nutmeg to stuff ravioli and serve with melted butter and sage. Panic set in; real panic, the kind that came complete with silent, streaming tears, feet stuck in concrete and low, short breaths. Rationally, Nora knew this was a most unhealthy and possibly pathological display of some sort of fear of abandonment or another such textbook condition but she could not think rationally and she could not find her Peter. In fewer than five minutes, he came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her so that his fists full of sage brushed her tear-streaked cheeks. She yelped a most unbecoming, needy and irrational yelp and hated herself for it Nora did not recognize this whiner, knew not where she’d come from nor who had let her take up residence in her otherwise sturdy self but yelp, nonetheless, she did. Eventually, her public yelping turned to a tiny whimper and, finally, she was capable of carting parcels to the wine and cheese stand, clumsily clinging to her Peter along the way. A couple of sniffles gave way to loud laughter, as he did his best to defuse the dramatic episode with some of his signature dry, comic relief.
She jolted atop her mound of clothes and looked up past the hangers and the long chain hanging from the power-saving lightbulb. Her thoughts ran wild: “that had been a premonition. Someone knew this was going to happen and had sent her a warning. Why hadn’t she realized it then? Why hadn’t she protested more before they sent him? Why the fuck did they call his parents, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly 18 months instead of her, his partner of 5 years, his friend and colleague for 10 years before that and the probable mother of his child? Oh, God. His child.” This pushed her forward in her resolve; she lifted herself up and began stuffing her quilted bag with favorite sweaters, socks, underwear, a few pairs of jeans and, before turning away from the closet, Peter’s wood-chopping sweater. The quilted bag puffed out unevenly and looked a bit like a poorly overstuffed sleeping bag. It would not suffice, sadly, and she went to look for another one.
She found a second bag purchased at that same stall, not the cylindrical, drawstring design of the first but rather an Italian knock-off of those flowered quilted bags she’d seen so much in Boston’s Logan airport and beyond, a favorite among the once preppy set of New England. Like most things Italian, however, this knock-off was better and more beautiful than the original it imitated. Peter had been afraid they might be stopped upon entering the US for carrying counterfeited merchandise. “But it’s not a counterfeit”, Nora held the bag up in front of him and reassured him, “look, this one is by “Vera Brotley”. They laughed heartily as they breezed through the customs area, deftly avoiding the cheese-sniffing beagle, and proceeded to the bus stop from which they headed north, towards darkness and home.
She began filling the second bag with her toiletries, her few medications and vitamins, her round brush, a blow dryer, some books. She fit her computer in its scuba diver’s case and slipped it in on top of her favorite boots and a pair of sneakers. She then grabbed all the chargers she might need: phone, i-pad, computer and looked around. That would suffice. For now.
On the phone, Peter’s father had suggested they meet at Dulles Airport as soon as she could get a flight. She had checked flights and found nothing until too late the following day. She decided she’d drive: what else could she do, sleep? Not likely. Not tonight. She’d called her friend and neighbor so that the house would be looked after. She simply said, “I have to go to D.C., it seems something has happened to Peter.” She had not yet told a soul that he was actually coming back in a body bag. Just the thought of uttering it aloud was enough to break her – for good, this time, not like the interminable five minutes at the Farmer’s Market.
Still, she smouldered that the powers that be had called Peter’s parents and not her. She dreaded the thought of celebrating his life with a bunch of people with whom he no longer associated, in a place foreign to her and forgotten by him. She was his life. This was their house. She was – she felt sure now – having their child.
She started the car, purse on the front seat, i-pad playing their “puttering-around-the-house-on-Saturdays” playlist. Her phone was set to silent, plugged into what once would have been a cigarette lighter and resting in what once would have been an ashtray. She drove-thru a Dunkin’ Donuts for a black coffee which she had the guy pour into her own mug. Peter and she, having both lived in Italy separately and then together for a long while, laughed at how American establishments had so successfully misconstrued the coffee culture of the Mediterranean and made it so inappropriately theirs. Whoever coined the terms “single” and “double” for espresso? Why does a latte have coffee in it? And don’t even get them started on mochaccinos, frappuccinos and the like. Of course, they told each other, they had to be careful around their friends, as their snickering could be taken for snobbery when it was anything but. They both firmly believed in the “when in Rome” concept when it came to coffee. When in Rome, or at home, they’d have Italian coffee. Anywhere else, they’d order it as the local Gods intended it to be. Reaching out to reclaim her mug, she impulsively ordered a dozen Munchkins: maple glazed, glazed chocolate and cinnamon. It had been more than 20 years since she’d had a Munchkin but just then she could think of nothing she wanted more.
Cup in its cup-holder, purse now on the floor- having been displaced by the Munchkins- Nora set out for Dulles Airport. 91 S. to 95 S. followed by a little variation of the 295-495-95 dance, easy enough. Coming up to Springfield, Vermont, Nora saw signs for 11 W. Her car exited. She drove-thru another Dunkin Donuts. This time she handed over her cup for a dark, hot chocolate and asked for 12 more Munchkins. Instead of climbing the on-ramp to 91S, Nora’s car –well, Peter and Nora’s, really– headed west. On her last, cold drop of dark, hot chocolate and licking her fingertip before pressing it to the Munchkin crumbs at the bottom of the box, Nora noticed signs for Buffalo and stayed the course on Interstate 90.
It was about then she realized she was headed to Alaska. They’d talked about it forever, watching Northern Exposure re-runs and marveling at the oxymoronic profound simplicity. In her google-mapping mania, she’d mapped it a thousand times. By her calculations, Peter’s plane would be getting into Dulles the following afternoon, EST. If she continued at this rate, she’d stay ahead of him at least until tomorrow night, PDT. If she never turned back, it would be as if he was still on mission and she’d hold the illusion of looking forward to their reunion. Only this would keep her blood pulsing through her veins, granting her warmth. Only this – and, oddly, a regular supply of Munchkins – would keep her sane.
She would call her neighbor in the morning and tell her she’d be away longer than expected and ask her to have the village real estate agent come down and look at the place. If they could find someone to pack her private things up and store them, she’d rent it out to one of the professors over at the college. Nora would stay on long enough to thank her neighbor for understanding but hang up before she asked too many questions. Her phone continued to flash on and off silently as she drove steadily from dark towards dusk, listening to “puttering around the house on Saturdays”.