Winter set in after Connie died and I more or less decomposed with her for a few months. Sloth became my god. I began getting up later and later, frequently staying in bed all day. Often as not, I slept fully clothed. When I ran out of food or smokes and had to leave the house, I’d pull a shirt and a pair of jeans from the increasingly unsavory pile of unwashed clothing heaped on the bedroom floor. Daily showers got to be less of a habit and cleaning and cooking desultory pastimes. I put a razor to my face once in a while, usually after catching a glimpse of my disheveled self in the mirror. Sleep was a fitful, anemic business, broken by bouts of staring at the wall without a thought in my head. Other times my mind raced over the peaks and valleys of our married life, sometimes for days at a stretch. Blissful it wasn’t, though we had our moments.
Connie and I lived in a perverse world of marital games. Our playground an ever shifting mess of infidelity, public embarrassment and acidic remarks custom tailored to our personal vulnerabilities.
If Connie called me a lousy bastard, I’d serve “useless bitch” back to her.
A variation on “Call yourself a man.” was a favored opening salvo.
My thumb-in-the-eye response would be a play on, “No darling, that’s your job.”
There were no rules, “game on” or “game off” was triggered by the clues that did or did not follow the opening gambit.
If for example she said, “Honey, would you make the tea? I just put the kettle on,” she meant no more than that. No game!
If she came home late in the afternoon smelling sweet, dressed to the kill and mentioned casually, “Oh, I met Jim downtown,” I would sniff the pregnant air and prepare to find a trail. The single word “met” could mean so much more. Pay attention! More clues coming. When inevitably I detected one, game on!
If however, she went on to report, “his son had made the varsity football team” or “his wife had just had a hysterectomy,” I would recognize it as chatter. Relax. Game off!
She once confessed to a friend, “I stay with Dane because he’s the only one who can keep up with me. Occasionally, he’s actually ahead of me.” My chest and my head could not have swelled more had I won a Nobel Prize. Her friend passed this on to me when we were in a cheesy hotel room engaged in our own contest. It was Connie’s turn to be detective that day.
Of course, long periods of rest were necessary for us to live our “real life.” We both would have had a stroke had we played without pause. In the heady early days we found relief in biking the hills outside of town. And many a Sunday we lay on the living room floor, eating bon-bons from a fancy box, sharing the Times crossword. Or we sat opposite each other quietly reading our books, looking across the room from time to time, and exchanging our wry smiles. Once in a while, the silent suggestion in those smiles led us to the panting excitement of the bedroom. Tigers could not have had better time of it and sex was often used to heal the wounds of our private battles.
The unassailable bond which kept us together was that we were active participants in our own and each other’s lives. Never indifferent, we were alive and eager for it all. The roots were strong and deep and yes, there was great love in all the competitive fierceness. We may have loved one another in an alien way, but when she was gone, there was no sigh of relief. The gash of grief was real and painful enough.
It was Connie’s commanding voice I heard when I first eased myself out of bed at a decent hour. She decided the day had come for me to forsake this pointlessly self-indulgent wallowing.
Come on Dane you lazy bastard, do something – anything. You can’t loll about like this forever.
She got me to bathe and shave. Dane, pull yourself together, you look like shit!
When I felt that inner twinge telling me that a release form had been signed, the barren branches of late March were showing tiny clusters of green. I went out in our yard and sat for whole afternoons, watching an increasingly warm sun play its splendid shadow game on the wooded hills overlooking our town.
Habits and rituals long lost began to revive, like leafing through the newspaper. For the first weeks I did not really see or bring meaning to the words. Who reads newspapers anymore, anyway? I began to scramble or fry an egg or two for breakfast instead of gnawing on debris from the fridge — stale bread and pieces of cheese which needed the mold cut from them. I started to drink coffee again, to buy the best beans and to take interest in the preparation rituals. I’d always loved coffee, but gave it up in my forties because of the jitters. Then, I drank it by the quart and abused it mainly as a stimulant. Now I drank little, tasted and enjoyed the brew –– just a small cup each day, sometimes two.
One morning I got up earlier than usual, showered and pulled on my pants. Bent over, toweling my hair, I caught a glimpse in the bathroom mirror of my gut hanging over my belt like a fifty pound bag of rice cinched in the middle. At a less than average height, I had started to look like Danny de Vito way too fast. Connie, of course, would have been merciless. Her voice roiled about in my head, oink, oink oink. you fat slob. why would any woman want that bouncing on top of her. you could keep the gym in business for a year.. god Dane, why don’t you get down to the zoo and join the other hippos?
I agreed. Not pretty, and wondered how long it had been since I’d done a sit-up. An enthusiastic exerciser most of my life, I had let it go, along with everything else in the year or so of Connie’s struggle to let go of life. Now I could see and feel the unhappy result of my indifference. I walked a few city blocks at first, stopping frequently, my hands on my knees huffing and puffing to catch my breath. By slow degrees I opened my stride, widened my circle and lengthened my distance. Within weeks I found I could cover five miles in an hour. The lard started to come off and the spring flowers got me smiling. I began feeling stronger, healthier and more at ease with the lean, clean-cut guy in the mirror.
Pepped up though I was by my new walking regimen, I was at heart a cyclist. At my athletic best I would catch sunrise on the road, riding at least twenty miles every day. We’d always had a bike or two in the over-packed storage space we called garage. Should I get mine out now? I poked around for 20 minutes, moving a box or two here and there in a half-hearted way. Suddenly dispirited I gave up looking and went back into the house. Confused that I’d found no bikes, I felt like someone had just picked my pocket.
The next day, out shopping for groceries, I remembered where I’d put them. I rushed back to the house and dumped bags full of cornflakes, coffee, bread, cheese and bologna on the counter, spilling the contents in my haste.
An unreasoning urgency gripped me. Running straight to the overgrown bottom of the yard, I began clearing the path to the garden shed. I pulled aside the ivy, uprooting the two foot high grass and nondescript shrubs like a crazed gorilla. Sweating and panting, I grappled my way to the shed door. Still frantically pulling at the last of the vegetation, I came across the rusted metal shaft of a rotted out hoe. I grabbed it, shoved its flattened end behind the shackle of the rusted lock and in one swift motion tore it off the door, screws, hasp, lock and all. Grabbing the partly opened door, I wrenched it back, splitting the old dry planks in my eagerness.
Inside, half-hidden in the gloom, were our bikes, leaning on the back wall of the shed, one behind the other, handlebars locked together in a twisted metallic embrace. I’d taken them both to this resting place when Connie got sick — one of those unthinking things you do as minor relief when more ominous events take over your life. Sitting atop ceramic pots, rusty tools and bags of rock-solid lawn care products, the red of Connie’s Schwinn and the chrome yellow of my old Fuji glowed dully through the dust and cobwebs.
I tore at handfuls of junk that stood in the way, slinging bags, boxes and tools aside to get to them. I realized quickly that Connie’s old Schwinn was rusted beyond recovery. I’ll have to pay the garbage guy a little extra to take it, I thought. I picked up her bike with both hands and tossed it out the shed door with a crash. Decayed and desiccated, my own steel-framed Fuji sat forlornly begging to be brought into the light. The chain was rusted, the saddle leather hard as stone. With a feeling approaching tenderness, I lifted the bike out of the shed and set it down on its airless, cracked tires. It had been an expensive and well cared for racer in its time. My neglect of this thing I’d once loved made the tears well up. I felt as if a farewell was being expressed and indeed it had been. But that had been months back. This was not a farewell. This was a welcoming, uplifting re-acquaintance.
I carried the bike to the garage, dusted the worst of the crap off it, hosed it down and splashed some oil and grease on the places where it mattered. A quick series of simple tests suggested it was mechanically sound and worth some effort. I felt I had been pulling against an unseen leash way too long. Without changing into my old duds, I dived right in, grabbed my tools and within hours had stripped the bike down to its ball bearings. I began greasing and tuning as I rebuilt it piece by piece. I bought new tires, a new saddle, re-taped the handlebar grips and installed and re-fitted another $500 in new parts.
It took three days working straight through to restore the Fuji. Meticulous without being slow, I worked steadily. I ate sparingly, exhausted at the end of the day and slept like bear in hibernation. On the fourth day, I rose at dawn and finished the re-assembly by noon. I fussed about with the eagerness of a puppy out of the pound for a half hour more, polishing the chrome and paintwork and checking the tire pressure for the umpteenth time. The gleaming re-constructed Fuji was ready to go. I could not have felt more proud had I single-handedly revived a city devastated by an earthquake. Testing the newly-greased brakes a couple of times, I pushed off to the clean cool air of the hills outside of town.
Hebditch grew up in London, England, and began writing by recording and fictionalizing his travels in journals. He earned an MA in anthropology from NYU and is a contributing editor to the Macmillan Dictionary of Archaeology. Married with two sons, he is a retired staff member of Princeton University.