Neil Mathison

Facts of the Case

Notes Magazine, Issue No. 5, (2012).

The evening her ex-husband phones, it’s raining and she’s under the weather from another round of Estiriol. Linguine steams in the colander. She’s dicing a clove of garlic. From her kitchen window – her “eagle’s aerie” she calls it – she can see the harbor. Sometimes she sees real eagles too, gliding heavily over the water, dropping below the tops of the tallest firs. Or she watches the Washington State ferry nosing into its landing, its decks white and green and layered like a wedding cake.

Robert, her ex-husband, is calling from Pt. Barrow, in the far northwest corner of Alaska. “I’m driving down the Al-Can,” he says. “OK if I stop by?”

Static hisses through his words. She hasn’t seen Robert in seventeen years. Still, the instant she hears his voice, warm and mellow and reminding her of chords he played on his acoustic guitar, she recalls their wedding more than thirty years ago – her rainbow dress, his white Nehru jacket, the cowry-shell necklace that hung from his neck, how fog reached under the Golden Gate Bridge, up into the park, enveloping the wedding party in icy arms.

She asks if he still ministers to Eskimos.

“Aleuts,” he answers. “They’ve got it all – alcoholism, drugs, VD. A microcosm of the American millennium.”

She remembers this tough-love talk, his disorganized idealism, the obsessive care he gave his collection of Dylan records; how she had to teach him to change the oil in his Volkswagen bus.

“I heard about your MS,” he says. “Sorry.”

“We live on an island,” she answers. “You’d have to take the ferry.”

“How’s Richard?”

“There are only two ferries a day.”

“I’ll catch the morning boat.”

When she cooks, especially lately, since the MS, she finds herself recalling random moments from her life: being tear-gassed with Abby Hoffman in’68, practicing law at Westinghouse, cycling through Tuscany with Richard on a tandem bike. She recalls her affairs – six premarital and one post – how she won the women’s squash championship at the San Jose Athletic Club. Sometimes the memories arrive unbidden, surprising her like the flavors in a well-simmered broth. Salt, slice, soak. Rijstafel, gazpacho, zabaglione. She cradles the phone against her shoulder. Robert’s breath husks through the receiver: in, out, in, out. She tries to concentrate on her recipe: three quarter cup of walnut oil, preferably French; a teaspoon of allspice; four cups of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Outside, a vine maple scrapes the windowpane like bone on a slate. Two cups of walnuts, toasted. When they first met she’d found Robert inspirational, then pedantic, finally oppressive. She wonders how much he has changed.

“Hello,” he rasps through the phone. “You still there?”

“OK. You can come.”

Before he hangs up he tells her he’s met a woman. “She’s Catholic,” he says. “We might get married.”

These are the facts of her life.

She ran two marathons (New York, 1981 and Boston, 1983), married twice (Haight-Asbury, 1970 and Palma, Majorca, 1985), chartered a sailboat in Turkey (1992). She became an accomplished chef. Now the smell of a food can make her nauseous. Collecting the mail leaves her breathless.

Since her diagnosis five months ago, her husband, Richard – West Point (1955), a New York Stock Exchange seat (1970-84), prostate cancer victim (remitted since 1993) – has become an expert on multiple sclerosis. There are new regimens, he insists, to arrest her disease: Avonex, Copaxone, Betaseron; acupuncture and vitamins. He urges her to try a vegetarian diet.

Lately, the smallest things – a magazine photograph, the aroma of ginger outside a Chinese restaurant, a Beetles song – will trigger a deluge of memories. She worries: will she have time to remember? She wonders: does it really matter if she remembers?

Consider the facts: she has lived a full life.

Consider the fact: she still wants to live her life.

She insists her doctor spare her no detail about her MS.

Dr. Baer tells her this: lesions are forming on your myelin, the protective sheath that surrounds the nerve fibers, on your optic and auditory nerves, on your spinal column, even in your brain. New, encouraging therapies exist. But each case is unique. We can’t be certain what will work. The disease may remit and recur at unpredictable intervals. It can be slowed. But never fully arrested. You will someday likely suffer permanent weakness, someday possible paralysis, someday probable loss of eyesight and memory, someday a diminishing of your thought processes. It probably won’t kill you.

My companion for life, she thinks.

The loss of her memories troubles her most. “You’ll have to care for me like a baby,” she tells Richard.

“Frankly my dear,” he answers in his poor Rhett-Butler-imitation, “As long as you’re with me, I don’t give a damn.”

“I’ll be a vegetable.”

“Then be an artichoke. I love artichokes.”

She promises Richard that should her ex-husband Robert stay overnight, she’ll mix Richard a pitcher of martinis, this despite her nagging Richard to cut back on martinis.
Richard sits in his big wingback chair, back straight like a cadet, his military bearing belying his gentleness. “I’ll take mine shaken, not stirred,” he says, affecting his even-worse-than-Rhett-James-Bondish-faux-British accent. “With olives.”

“But if he leaves without spending the night,” she adds, “you make the martinis, mine with pearl onions, straight up.”

“You don’t like martinis,” Richard says.

“But I like the onions,” she answers. “And I like watching you make them.”

The day Robert is due to come, she wanders through the house, straightening a picture frame here, placing cut daffodils on the kitchen counter, plumping the sofa pillows for the third time. She plans a Spanish dinner: tapas, gazpacho, paella. She has cooked the chicken, de-veined the shrimp, scrubbed the clams, sliced chorizo, peeled onions, checked that she has the right seasonings – saffron, garlic, fresh red peppers, paprika, and oregano. On the stove her broth simmers.

“Smells like heaven,” Richard says, his golf bag swinging from his shoulder. “What is it?”

“Chicken stock. For paella.”

“Cook it well. Life’s too short for bad paella.” He leans to kiss the nape of her neck. “I’m hitting the links.”

“You’ll miss Robert’s arrival.”

“I know.”

“Coward!”

Richard waves cheerfully as he escapes out the door. “He’s not my ex-husband.”

Robert misses the morning ferry. When he finally arrives, he stands at the door, taller than she remembers, slim-hipped (still) and pony-tailed (as always), but his hair, once the color of acorns, has turned a rust-streaked gray. An amulet hangs from his neck: a leather pouch, a few owl feathers, the foot of an Arctic hare, all tied together with a doeskin thong. She leans to kiss his cheek and touches the amulet with her fingers. She’s surprised at its softness, like Robert’s skin, as she remembers it, on the inside of his thighs.

An Aleut dream catcher, he explains.

His car, a new Toyota, blocks the driveway. It’s streaked with mud and filled with cross-country skis and backpacks and Primus cook stoves and cardboard boxes that overflow with clothing and magazines and dog-eared books. Robert never gives away books. Until this moment, she hasn’t wanted him to stay. Now she tells him she’ll make up the guestroom bed.

“You look terrific,” he says.

She glances at her reflection in the hall mirror. She’s still slender, although her chin, she thinks, is too small and her forehead too large. Her short hair remains black. Black as raven’s feathers, Robert used to say. But now her face is drug-puffy from the Estirol and her eyes are ringed and hollow.

They sit at her kitchen table, next to the window where Robert can best see the harbor.

He fingers a daffodil petal. “Nice.”

“From the local greenhouse,” she explains.

Neither has stayed in touch with shared old friends. Robert sips a glass of red wine. “Join me in a glass?” he says. “Red wine makes you live longer.”

She sticks to water.

“So what’s with your MS?” He screws up his face – a gesture intended, she supposes, to show concern.

She shrugs. “I try to ignore it.”

“How like you.” He shakes his head. “Always so tough.”

“Let’s talk about something else.”

He tells her of his work in Alaska: stories about abused wives and abandoned children, ill-conceived government programs and unsympathetic authorities. Beneath each story lies a parable: the dignity of the underclass, the stupidity of bureaucrats. His anecdotes are the same as they were twenty years ago, set in Pt. Barrow instead of Oakland, told with dream catchers instead of street jive. But as he talks, she is surprised to discover how much she still feels the electricity of his persona. When he touches her shoulder to emphasize a point. When he grasps her hands to signal the profundity of one of his conclusions. His eyes, brown and sorrowful, seem as though they could bear all the suffering in the world. I’m being conned again, she thinks. But it’s almost fun, being conned, at least if you’re conned by Robert. There is something in it dangerous, beguiling, sexy. There’s even a moment as they stand side-by-side at the sink – Robert has offered to peel the potatoes – when their hips touch and she is tempted. What would it be like? What would it be like, she wonders, after so many years, to make love to Robert?

Later, while she prepares a spinach salad, Robert sits across the counter thumbing through photo albums she has forgotten to put away. The albums are of Richard and her, of their travels together. She has been studying them, hoping that if she commits the photos to memory, perhaps her past will slip more slowly from her mind.

“Where’s this?” Richard asks after every few photos.

“Turkey,” she answers. Or Sienna. Or Bora Bora. Or Hong Kong. Each photograph a memory: the azure Aegean; a cafe she and Richard found just off the Piazza del Campo; the voluble little monk they met on a Wanchai tram; the photos fix the track of her life.

“I need a favor,” Robert says suddenly.

“What’s that?”

“I want an annulment.”

She lays the leaf she’s been washing on the butcher-block board, wipes her hands on her jeans, turns off the faucet.

“We’re already divorced,” she says. “Or did I miss something?”

He pulls a blossom from one of the daffodils and holds the petal up to his eye. “I told you. I’m thinking of getting married. She’s Catholic.”

“You can’t annul what doesn’t exist.”

“We can.” He stares at her earnestly, as if he was about to deliver the punch line to one of his parables. “We fill out a few forms. Answer a questionnaire. As long as we agree to the facts – and neither of us contests it – the Church will grant our request.”

“The fact is we were married.”

“Only seven months.” He rolls the daffodil petal into a tiny tube.

“As I recall we consummated the marriage – or don’t you remember?”

“Of course I remember.” He places his fingers to his forehead, what he does when he meditates, his eyes closed, his lips pressed together. She’d forgotten how much this irritated her, as if he is speaking over her head, addressing a plane that’s beyond her understanding. “It’s a matter of intent.”

“For having no intent, we sure screwed each other’s brains out.”

“You’re being difficult.”

Her hand grips the edge of the sink; she feels the smooth coldness of the metal under her fingers like a stethoscope or a scalpel. “I don’t think so.”

“For Christ’s sake!” Robert crumples the blossom into a tiny yellow knot. “We were kids.”

“We were married. You can’t wish it away.”

“I’ve never asked you for anything.”

“You asked me for a divorce.” She remembers how he’d already packed his Volkswagen bus, how he wrote her a month later from Monument Valley that he was sharing a hogan with a Navajo girl. I’m growing in a different direction, his letter had said.

“Just look at the questionnaire.” He extends his hand toward her clutching the sheaf of limp papers. “How can it matter?” He can’t quite hide his anger. She can see it in the set of his jaw.

She looks past him through the kitchen window. The bare maple limbs frame the harbor. The water’s surface is mirror-still.

Why does it matter?

Consider: in multiple sclerosis, her body will progressively fail. She will grow deaf, lose her sense of touch, her sight, her ability to walk, to speak, to feed herself, to use the toilet on her own. She will become a prisoner in her body, as her body collapses into what will be her ultimate solitary confinement.

Consider: without her history, who will she be?

“No,” she says.

He turns away, staring out the window. “You haven’t changed. You’re still a hard-hearted bitch.”

“Get out.”

His gaze snaps back from the window. She watches surprise flash across his face.

“I’m sorry.” He attempts a smile. He brushes his fingertips across her hip. “That was inappropriate.”

She moves closer to the sink, beyond the reach of his hand. She picks up her knife and begins scribing a spinach leaf into tiny triangles.

His elbows rest on the counter. He folds his hands prayerfully. The annulment questionnaire still dangles from his fingers. “This means a lot to me.” His eyes are child-wide. He wears his sincere face, a face that once always persuaded her.

“What it means to you,” she says. She has carved the spinach triangles smaller and smaller, until they’re little more than green stain on the cutting board. “Everything always for you.”

“What does that mean?”

“You demanded a divorce. We never even discussed it.”

“Let’s discuss it now.”

“Oh Jesus!” She tosses the knife in the sink. It clatters into the garbage disposal. “You use people. You even use your Aleuts to justify how compassionate you are.”

“Look,” he says, “the marriage was a mistake.” His hands grip the counter as if he’s trying to steer the conversation in another direction.

“You’re damned right it was a mistake.”

“So why does it matter? An annulment or a divorce? Who cares?”

“It wasn’t an annulment. We divorced. Those are the facts.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m not certain you’ll understand this.” She brushes an imaginary hair from her forehead. “If you pretend a thing that’s happened didn’t happen, you change who you are– you devalue yourself.”

With sudden, ecstatic clarity she’s certain this is true.

He shakes his head. “After all these years, you still want to hurt me.”

“This has surprisingly little to do with you,” she says.

But she wonders: Is that true?
“Isn’t there anything I can do?”

“Talk to your fiancée. Persuade her.”

He rises slowly to his feet still clutching the papers in one hand, fingering his dream catcher with the other. “I’ll sleep in the car.” he says. He tosses the questionnaire on the countertop. The pages flutter to the floor like little white doves, weightless and insubstantial. “I’m not leaving until we discuss this calmly.”

“Suit yourself.”

He turns abruptly and glides to the front door. Like an athlete or a dancer. Like water in a stream. Like silk in a breeze. She has always loved the way he moves. “Get a life,” he calls out as he slams the door behind him.

I have a life, she thinks. I’ve always had one.

When Richard returns home, she’s sitting at the kitchen table, staring at their photo album. Richard leans his golf bag against the table. “Where is he?”

“In his Toyota.”

For fifteen minutes she has lingered over one picture, in Mallorca, in 1985. Richard and she have just gotten married. They are standing on the steps of the Palma City Hall, she in a cream muslin suit, he a wrinkled navy blazer. He holds her bouquet in front of his mouth, pretending to eat the flowers.

“He won’t leave until I agree to an annulment.”

“A little late for that.”
“He says I’m being a hard-hearted bitch.”

Richard shrugs. “I’ll talk to him.” He swings the refrigerator door open and removes a six-pack of microbrews. He leans close to her. She can feel the warmth of his breath against her ear, smells its fragrance of cinnamon and cloves. “You’re probably being hard-hearted,” he whispers, “but you’re my kind of bitch.”

While he’s gone all she can think of are spices. Richard insists on alphabetizing them in their cabinet drawer. Allspice, basil, bay; cardamom, chervil, chili; chive, cinnamon, cloves, and coriander. By the time she reaches nutmeg, she can’t recall what comes next. Perhaps she is being too hard. Maybe she should agree to the annulment. But she’s afraid. Consider: if she lets even one fact go, she might lose them all.

When Richard walks into the kitchen he’s whistling. He pretends to click his heels. He salutes. “Mission accomplished.”

“He’s leaving?”

“I told him he could keep the six-pack.”

“He left because you gave him beer?”

“I told him I’d have a heart-to-heart talk with you.”

She stiffens. “I don’t want to discuss this…”

“OK.” He lifts the lid on the saffron rice. “The matter.s closed. When’s dinner?”

“He’s really gone?”

“Gone with the wind.”

The aroma of paella fills the kitchen, steamy with garlic and oregano. For the first time in days, at least since her ex-husband’s phone call, perhaps since her diagnosis with MS, she relaxes, suffused within the kitchen’s warmth, by Richard’s presence, feeling safe in a manner she doesn’t quite understand. She can barely keep her eyes open – a symptom of the Estirol is it? The fingers of her left hand are numb. Nothing, she thinks, nothing has really changed. But still, despite the inevitability of her disease, despite the hard, cold weight of her MS, she senses danger averted, self preserved, a spirit lifting like the eagles she watches lift on the wind. What else is there to preserve?

“I’ll have my Martini dry,” she says, “straight up, don’t forget the onions.”

Selected Works

Fiction
When is it too late? A divorced spouse demands an annulment.
A navy sailor faces choices and challenges on a Vietnamese river during the war.
Essay/Memoir
Mathison explores how his seagoing ancestors may have drawn him to the sea.
Essay
This essay explores what it means to live in the shadow of an active volcano.

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