In the car, Francis did not say a word. He looked, forlornly, out the window at the passing scenery. I put my hand on his knee and asked him how he felt. It’s different now, he said and placed his hand on top of mine. Different, how? I don’t know, he replied, just different. Then he was back in his mind again. I continued talking about trivial matters. The weather had turned hectic. Sea levels had been rising alarmingly, and people were fleeing from the coasts into the mainland. Cities were disappearing. The transition between seasons had become abrupt and unforgiving as if someone up there wanted to see how we would react to that. Have you read Dante’s Inferno? Francis was looking at me now. I asked him to repeat the question. He went on. That’s how I feel, it’s like I’m in beast mode. He closed his fists, placed them together and brought them to eye level, the way children do to mime the use of a telescope. It’s like I’m looking through a plastic tube. Everything is unglued.
Did the therapy help? It did, it made him aware of how his mind worked, it helped him become aware of the plastic tube. I promised him he was going to get better, but I don’t think he heard that. He was looking out once more.
There had been signs; signals, lights going on and off. Martha, who spent the most time with him, told me about these symptoms when we still saw each other regularly. Francis couldn’t sleep, and she would often find him wandering around the apartment in the middle of the night, without knowing what he was doing. He kept asking her, out of the blue, whether she wanted to say something because she was always clearing her throat. She wasn’t doing that, but he heard the sound at all times. People clearing their throats, preparing to say something, which they never did. And he was curious to know, so much, until that curiosity began to eat his guts, and he lost his mind.
The prospect of losing him terrified Martha. Because they had been living together for a while and he was taking steps into directions that unsettled her sense of the world. He would sit around for hours doing nothing, telling her about the things he was going to do. He could find a decent job that was going to make him so people-smart that she will no longer recognize him. She was scared witless. He smoked so much that the hairs inside his nose turned yellow. His teeth, too, because he overlooked oral hygiene. This torpor consumed most of his days. There were good days as well when he would go out and return with a bag of groceries. More often than not he would return empty-handed with a face that spoke a thousand words. She would then fall at his feet, beg him to come back to her. He would smile, fiendishly almost, and tell her that he was there. He wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t violent, he was merely absent-minded. He put the coffee brewer on the burner without pouring the water in it. The brewer burned minutes later. He didn’t apologize, didn’t promise to buy a new one.
They slept in the same bed but didn’t touch. They had stopped touching long before that. She leaned into him, and his attention could only be drawn from whatever was going on in his mind by her clear intentions. He needed to see that she wanted to kiss him, he didn’t do anything on his own volition. He had to be shown how to do it, and when to start doing something. Martha closed herself inside the bathroom when he went on the balcony to smoke, late at night. She cried from fatigue and despair. She was working shifts, and at times she was afraid of going to work, thinking of all the terrible things he might do to himself, knowingly or unknowingly. He could try and make coffee and forget the water again, or forget about the coffee altogether and set the house on fire. She cringed whenever at work she was called by her supervisor thinking that that was it, the call that told her he had succeeded in taking his own life. She also cried, bitterly, because, secretly, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she wanted to be finally, and irreversibly, free of him. It was going to hurt, a lot, she thought, but she was going to fight through it. She was strong enough to do it.
When she did get the call, that call, she broke down. She went to the hospital, to his room, where he stood, akin to a mummified pharaoh, on a bed of light blue sheets, and transparent tubes. He looked at her from above, and she broke down right there and then, in front of him. This time furiously, pitilessly, charging at him, hitting him, raising her fists in the air. You selfish animal, she howled, and the nurses at the central station turned their heads. The word, animal, akin to a ritualistic combination of words, the demon evoked in need of spiteful words to fully emerge from the underworld, to hatch from that egg of anger. I’m done with you, she continued, I’m tired of looking for you. I’m done with this constant fear, the continuous search for you. A smile played on his lips. You’re right, he said, I don’t want it any longer either. Martha then fell on a chair, next to the wall, and sobbed uncontrollably, because there it was, what she feared most, his irreversible loss in the murkiness of his own thoughts, out of which she had tried, and failed, to pull him. She grabbed her bag and held it to her chest. You’re melodramatic, he said, which also means you never loved me. She froze, her voice still buried in her guts, her legs finally lighter, her fatigue liberated, it danced somewhere else in the hospital room. The fact that you’re leaving me, right here; that’s what it means.
She was melodramatic, she thought on her way out, and he didn’t deserve it, not in the least bit, not even feelings heightened to theatricality. She saw his gesture as one of pure selfishness. He didn’t think of her when he cut his wrists and watched the blood run out of his body. He couldn’t have possibly thought of her when he sat in the bathtub, naked, and filled it with water. It was the downstairs neighbor who had discovered him there, alive, barely, the blood-red liquid that had oozed through the vents, to stain the man’s bathroom ceiling. He was the one who called the ambulance, and he was the one who had called her workplace. He must have left the water running on purpose, she thought, to ruin her bathroom, bring everything down with him, her carpets, let his blood soak everything. She was sure of it.
She got out of the hospital and walked toward the center of the parking lot. She couldn’t remember where she left her car and she stood there for a while shielding her eyes from the sun. She started getting impatient. For the death of her, she couldn’t recall from which direction she drove in. She started walking quickly, then running, then she came back to where she had started looking. Her armpits were dark with sweat. She turned on her heels and still she couldn’t remember. Then she sat down on the concrete, behind an electric panel to hide from the sun. She was out of breath.
The light above her changed, the evening sun was shifting. Heat emanated from the ground and the cars all around her. Another thought crept into her, and it disturbed her because it was unwelcome. Perhaps he was right as well. The fact that she had left him, at a time when he needed her most, was irrefutable proof that she wasn’t in love with him after all. That she had failed.
She stood up and looked around the parking lot. She remembered now. The cafeteria next to the parking lot, the big tree behind it. She remembered parking the car beneath it, in the shade. She walked, and to her relief, she saw the car. And that relief felt so familiar to her. It was as if she had been looking for it for a very long while.