By: Tracey Levine
I met Rachel when she’d already been married and divorced and was enrolled in a second Master’s degree program to study something new, to change her life. I was in a class with her and we met for coffee one afternoon, the first time I got to talk to her off-campus. I set up the meeting, convincing her, I thought, that we should try and solidify some paper ideas through conversation but I really just thought that she was pretty, more interesting than the others. And I was recently single then. I knew all about the architecture of her current life because she’d offered bits of it in class through discussion. A divorcee’, I could handle, even one with a touch more baggage. She agreed to coffee without hesitance. She was the woman that I waited to see every week maybe because there was more girl in her thirty-something face and mannerisms- the mismatched socks, the messy hair always with one rogue arc seeming to purposely mar whatever style she’d twisted it into, and then there was the sweater.
She was wearing the sweater the day of our coffee shop meeting, or date. In retrospect, I don’t think it was our first date. We both drank our coffees black and she hadn’t brought any of her work. I had a notebook and some articles spread on the table when she came in, ten minutes late, gesturing that she’d get coffee first before she came over to me. When she came over she bent down, before I could stand up, to hug me, coffee steadied in her hand like we were professionals but very admiring of one another. Then she sat down across the table from me, not beside me, and pushed her back into the chair so that she seemed far away.
The sweater was somewhere between brown and plum, the color of a deep and recent bruise, and it was pilly, had holes under each armpit, large enough to see when her arms rested at her sides, one side’s hole larger than the other. She always wore it tied with its knit belt just above the waistline. She never loosened it. She wore this sweater so often, but not always, and I started noticing how her shoes always looked new, the long skirts or draping pants that hung from the sweater were bright and perfect, and then there was her face, always so sharp. Even when she looked worried, once in class because she had to hand in a late paper, there was smirk that came through indicating she couldn’t let anything snub her out. But the sweater was a blight, although it was undoubtedly hers, like something too rustic in a modern room.
She smirked at me as she took turns scanning my face and the papers on the table in front of me, flirtatiously, on the verge of a laugh until I apologized and collected them into a pile, pushed them to a side. There was some small talk, then she asked me, “Do you think we’re gonna make it?”
I didn’t hesitate to tell her that no, we were all going to die somehow or another at some time, and this really had us both laughing until she admitted that she meant our program, did she think that the two of us would graduate, get to be professionals. I said, “Of course. I’m not going to let you fail, and I don’t fail.”
This sobered her a bit but she managed to sip coffee, thinking deeply, I could tell, prompting me to do the same until she said, “You know, my ex-husband had this grandmother.”
It was such a strange statement, as if everyone didn’t get the opportunity to have a grandmother, at least in fact if not in relationship, and so ‘this grandmother,’ by simple turn of phrase became myth. She said that her ex-husband told her that he and his grandmother had a cosmic bond. He mentioned this to Rachel on one of their first dates, when they were describing their families. He shared a middle name with her deceased husband, his grandfather, whom he never met, and also with his deceased Uncle, who he knew quite well, who never moved out of the house until he died. She said, “Funny how he was hardly a cosmic man, but he was forgiving.”
I didn’t know what to say so I asked her, not sure what I wanted at all: “Do you miss him?”
Rachel laughed, rolled her a head a bit as if stretching for an act of athleticism then slammed her coffee cup down on the table. We became that table in the café where something was happening. She loved this kind of attention. She continued with her story but before she got back into it, she asked me, “You know how things happen, when they don’t really happen? Or maybe they are happening and you can’t acknowledge it.”
I nodded as the thought of ending the meeting, to leave if not immediately then shortly, flew through me but incinerated almost instantaneously and for no good reason other than I was absorbing her. I could feel that something was happening. She bore into my eyes with hers when she said that the grandmother was one of those women who aged like they were always meant for antiquity. Pictures of her from the thirties and forties weren’t flattering. She wasn’t distinct. As an aged woman, she was a masterfully chiseled sculpture, always standing as everyone loafed in her living room that was decadent and close, lots of velvet and old goblets, bottles engulfed in gold leaf, tarnished mini-chandeliers that sunk over loveseats and chaise lounges so that it was like sitting in a cluttered version of an old Hollywood starlet’s dressing room. But none of the stuff was expensive and in fact most of the time the grandmother went on at length about how she acquired all of her things by extreme and precise bargain, or a card game. Some were simply gifts, but always in return for some service she performed. She cut hair, she sewed and knitted, she was good with electronics. She had a massive old radio that she had to hardwire every time she turned it on sending sparks from the back of the hulking piece each time.
She was afraid of tarot cards and psychics, but not of the stars because she believed that every person received energy from a faraway place, not from god, but from the cosmos. One should never question something so powerful and so far away. She lived in the middle of the woods, in a house that hardly led on to what was inside of it. Rachel said that the grandmother asked her the first time they met as she sat with her ex-husband’s siblings in the pseudo-lavish living room, if she ate animal organs. Everyone quieted when this question was lobbed at her as if it were very sensitive, so much so, that she thought to lie but she’d never even eaten a liver. When she said no, the room erupted in laughter. Rachel never felt so alone in her life. The grandchildren, sensing her discomfort then, whimsically recounted trash bags that often allowed them to see antlers, rounded haunches, turtle shells all poking through the plastic. They made jokes about how the grandmother ate all sorts of things.
The visits to the grandmother were always short. She played records and had a story for each grandchild that she’d weave into the day before sundown as they all had to be off before she could offer them dinner, a pact they’d agreed upon, to never eat the grandmother’s food after their Uncle had passed.
But it was hard to keep this promise as the grandmother had snacks and drink all day long and the grandchildren had to keep them circulating around the room to make it appear they were grazing. Her ex’s sister used to indulge quite a bit, especially on the drink, and Rachel’s ex would force her into the car with them even if she wasn’t visibly drunk, sometimes with much effort, and each time she’d crumple in the backseat into a cocoon-like sleep right after they’d left, sometimes requiring help into her own bed. After the third trip to the grandmother’s house, at a restaurant where Rachel and her ex were eating dinner and after they deposited his sloppy sinking sister in her bed, carried her up the three flights of stairs to her apartment, after she’d had most of a bottle of homemade wine and quite a few cookies, he told her that his Uncle had drowned.
Quite bored at this point in the story, I asked something relevant although I wanted to ask her something personal: “Was the grandmother a bad cook or something?”
Rachel finished her coffee with a slurp as if by making that sound she’d summon more coffee. She looked deeply into her mug, and didn’t answer but continued, well sort of, with: “Do you know what the grandmother’s story for my ex was? That he had the biggest dreams. She knew this because of how his eyes moved so crazily under his eyelids when he slept.”
Rachel looked right at me then and I saw how terribly confused she was, how deliberation had abandoned her at some point in her life and freed her. She had no idea why she was telling me this story, but I knew, right then, I knew. I smiled at her and this made her face sterner, her eyes harsher. I had the thought that no one man, or maybe woman, had made it this far with her, at least recently. She continued, “The Uncle had eaten a hearty breakfast, she told everyone this after his body was dredged from the water.”
The uncle was a hobbyist scuba diver, had a group he went out with often. Her ex said that he and his siblings used to urge him to tell stories of his dives even though he hadn’t been in any exotic places. He’d focus on his equipment, of being sealed in, counting each breath, having to consider the quality of it. The ex was bitter when he spoke of the uncle though, mentioning his beer belly flopping over his pants so that he waddled, the way he’d fall on one of the grandmother’s velvet chaise’s with absolutely no dignity, usually with a bottle to his lips.
He passed out in his scuba suit close to the surface at the beginning of the dive but not immediately, so that the others were moving away from him. One accounted that the Uncle floated above him which was very unusual because he was usually the first one in always leading. He hung in the water with his arms rising like a ballerina, a sun spot burning its way through the water to the side of his body like it were his soul.
Rachel had a smirk when she delivered this detail. She put her coffee on the table and actually tightened the belt of her sweater, and it was so deliberate that I felt anticipation. She said, “You know that he knew it all along, that there was something wrong with the food, not always, but often enough.”
The thought of sleeping for days was a soft thought. Eyes closed, to dream or maybe not even actual dreams. But I still had to be rational, as Rachel was doing this. Maybe she didn’t realize that I didn’t buy her feigned disdain, not a bit, right then. I asked, “What do you mean he slept for three days?”
Her ex had said that he’d known since about the age of ten, that if you eat more than a little, meaning more than one cookie and a quarter of a plate of food, you’d fall into a deep sleep. It was during summers they’d spent away from the city with the grandmother. The grandmother just wanted them to stay longer, to stay with her, was one of the ways that he explained it, something that immediately terrified Rachel. She was pregnant and hadn’t told him this yet when he told her about his Uncle. She was pregnant; they were engaged.
I asked, “What did you do? Was this woman a sociopath?”
Somehow, the word ‘woman’ made Rachel harden. This grandmother wasn’t a woman to her. Truly, this grandmother was a key to something but I couldn’t say this then. I’ll never say it. The uncle’s death was deemed an accident, his blood never tested, his body never cracked open for answers.
Rachel paused and stared hard at me again, leaning forward on her elbows, but definitely pleased. I hunched over my coffee cup, mimicking her on my own elbows. We were bookends. I waited for her to talk but she started to look around the café’, searching for something or just scanning. She seemed all at once comfortable and uncomfortable, then she landed back at our table and said, “I didn’t have the baby. I miscarried. Then I left him.”
I said, “I’m sorry. Well, maybe not, I’m not sure…”
She finished with, “…not sure what to make of all of this. This story, my story. Don’t you think when we both meet with our clients, when we get out there, we’ll have so many more stories, these constructs? That’s what I’m worried about. If I’ll be able to believe them or at least believe something about the person, you know?”
I nodded, but slowly, considering that maybe Rachel wasn’t meant to be a professional, or that maybe she some sort of genius. She smiled at me as she got up slowly, maybe waggling her hip for a moment or at least that is how I remember it, her slinking over to get coffee and she was so exotic suddenly but also kind of normal, for me at least, and just what I was looking for.
When she came back, she was quiet. We’d been in that café’ for over an hour and the light had changed. Everyone who’d been with us in the beginning had gone. I noticed that there were coffee stains on the papers I’d brought and Rachel didn’t speak for a while as she drank more coffee, looking back at me contemplatively and then away. I was doing the same thing like we were naked figures in a painting class and we were trying to see each other in just the right way.
We got married just after we both graduated, two years after that first meeting at the coffee shop, in the same month. We live in the woods now, close to where the grandmother used to live, but only recently have we left the city. I know this because we were driving home from work together- we work at the same clinic- after we’d been situated in our house six months, a house we both decided we’d stay in until the end and she said that she wanted to get rid of the sweater. She stopped wearing it in public right about the time we stopped trying to have children, something I only noticed much later than this, not that we ever really did try very hard to have children. There were miscarriages, many of them, like something wouldn’t stick. It was never dramatic and I never complained or was even upset that it would just be us, and our work.
We hadn’t spoken about the grandmother for our whole marriage, maybe once after the coffee shop when I came home to a strange smell in our apartment. There were a few other times I came home to this strange smell, but not very many. She’d eaten a shark liver and said that it was hard to get down but it gave her such good energy, and she so much understood why someone would consume animal organs ritualistically. It was not very often she’d get spiritual in any way, ever. I came to understand. We lived our lives together like two buildings, identically designed, but with entire and different purposes. There are only certain things we knew to come together on, and the others left trace, or at least I know this about my wife, in the long wanderings of her mind, the stretches of strictly civil conversation, the pallor of her skin whiter at times and at other times more silken. She is a better therapist than I am but I am better at being a person. I think. I have hobbies. Rachel comes with me occasionally, smiling, inquisitive, engaging just enough to dip her hands into whatever I’ve immersed myself in so that she can easily shake it off, and politely retreat.
At that coffee shop, on that afternoon, she reached across the table in that beckoning light and placed one hand on top of mine. I think that my fingers were tented when she came and flattened them then smiled at me but took it away and told me about the sweater. She’d stolen it on one of the last afternoons she was at the grandmother’s house while her ex-husband and his siblings and the grandmother was in the other room, when she was very ordinarily going to the bathroom. She derailed and went into a room beyond the bathroom, down the hallway near the laundry room.
There on a hook was this ragged thing, and it was stained. With blood and maybe glue and just some other dark spots, some of which were fresh. Rachel picked it up and realized it was bigger than she expected it to be and it had pockets and a belt. She smelled it and it was wild and warm, and old. She had a big purse so she put it in there and realized that she’d hardly stolen throughout her marriage, not even a toothbrush or a piece of gum. She used to as a teenager and as a young adult, but never at stores. Her game was in the lives of others, at their houses, in their dorm rooms, sweeping the things that seemed so important and yet something that person wouldn’t come after, something that they would or needed to let go of.
I asked, “So have you taken anything of mine yet?”
She answered, “Oh, I would think so.”
She called me selfish but continued with her story. She said that even though she came back into the room with a gigantic sweater stuffed into a purse that was very large but hardly hid it, no one said a thing. She’d never seen the grandmother wearing the sweater, not once. When they all came to see her she was always dolled up, was pristine in the way a chocolate in a box of chocolates needs to be either in wrappers or nestled in its own shape in the box, so that you can’t resist it. She said she couldn’t explain why she took this thing from the grandmother. She knew that she used it, that it probably meant something to her. There was one last visit, after the miscarriage, when Rachel had already packed some things unbeknownst to her husband as he was the sort to not notice such things, his wife’s things leaving, his wife shuffling around putting herself elsewhere.
I said, “He doesn’t sound so terrible. I mean there are worse situations in marriage.”
“He just didn’t have the capacity for complexity, for real complexity. All of those sleepy afternoons and he doesn’t remember a thing. Doesn’t understand. You know? There is right and there is wrong. And there is life.”
I asked about the sweater, compared it to a ceremonial robe, asking her about the stains. She said that the grandmother slaughtered her food in it, probably, went into the woods wearing it on her long walks, but she washed all of that out. In the end it was just a comfortable sweater and it made her feel connected to the universe, or maybe it was just a souviner.
I wanted to tell her something about myself. All afternoon long I’d listened, and I preferred it this way but I also saw narcissism as an undefeatable wall, but I knew that Rachel was calculating, a woman who knew that her stories could unlock things. After a long silence, after it seemed we’d never leave that café, it seeming then also that we’d just begun, her work, our partnership leading to the rest of our professional lives, her trumping anything I wanted which I gave to her like a needed liver. I told her that I’d seen a woman in the woods when I was barely a teenager.
I said, “She was bent over a fallen tree and she was grunting and there was a man taking her from behind. I stared and listened, and they didn’t notice me for a while and I was wondering why I didn’t get aroused but I also knew that this woman was calling out in some sort of pain, even if it wasn’t entirely physical. I thought she was being raped and then I knew I should do something. I picked up a rock and I was going to charge in and stop the whole thing. It all seemed so possible- all of it- me saving her, me knocking that man out of the way, but then she saw me as she craned her neck a bit and I saw that she was truly calm, and she smiled, and I knew that she was exactly where she wanted to be.”
Rachel didn’t like that story at first, but said that it wasn’t because I didn’t do anything. She hated that story because I wanted to do something, that I thought a puny rock could do anything. I asked, “Should I have walked away? I mean, eventually I did. Are you saying I should have just let things take their course, things that have nothing to do with me?”
“You should have followed her home and fallen in love. You should have taken that face forever.”
I wasn’t following, and now I am still not sure what Rachel meant. She is superstitious and has that sweater like it showcases a blackbelt in a very swept-under the carpet kind of sadism, or masochism, or probably both. That girl in the woods, I was meant to have and would, eventually. It is a wonderful thing when you have a wife who will never reveal the solution to the riddle, even if there isn’t one, maintaining the idea that there may be. This is most important. This has made us richer than we thought it would.
When we did leave that coffee shop that day and we’re out on the street in the city and the wind kicked up and took Rachel’s hair in a direction across her face that she had to use her hands to deal with, I wanted to stand there forever watching her move her hair around, seeing her tighten her sweater. She smiled like a little girl, like a trusting little girl before we left just before she finished the story of the grandmother for good, or well mostly, by saying: “You know what she told methe last time I saw her, during the last visit. This is what I was trying to tell you in there. She said while I was sitting with all of the others. She said, ‘Mothers never really get what they want.’ And you know, all of the others, all of them laughed at her, made jokes, and then went on to something else as if her words were nothing.”
She kissed me on the cheek before she left that day, crossing in the middle of the street, the rush of traffic eventually washing her physical presence away completely, and I walked home thinking that life, that my life was a thing anyone could use in any way they wanted to.
Rachel always paces in the evenings, she always has, and sometimes I know that she is not well. I know that she has stricken herself from herself and she sleeps and she sleeps, and when she gets up and I see her standing by the windows, not in the city now, her hair ashen and soft but still wild and wound, I see in her white face that’s sometimes softer, sometimes moister, that she has let it all run through her again and again because there is nothing else that can be done about it. And I wonder why I’ve never drown in those dreams I know she surely has, that she’s never given me, those long swept-away hours, how she has touched what must be the sky only to wake up and be free again.
Check out the interview with Tracey here!