Chapter 34 – William

Hello Beautiful

ovember 2008

William did ’t arGue whe ke t came home with him from the hospital. There was nothing William could have said to make his

friend leave him alone. In the hospital, while William sat in a chair in the waiting room, waiting to hear from the doctor not if Sylvie could be saved, because she couldn’t, but what had happened, Emeline had held his hand. No one but his wife had held his hand for a long time, and this gesture from his sister-in-law was one of the ways he knew Sylvie really was gone. Cecelia was on her feet most of the day, trying to get information from any nurse or doctor who made the mistake of glancing in her direction. Kent paced the room too. Beside William, Emeline cried in an undramatic, unembarrassed way. Her cheeks shone with tears under the fluorescent lights. She said, “I want to make you eat, but I know you don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to.”

That night, turning the key in the apartment door hurt. It yawned open and revealed the landscape of his happiness. William had walked through this door eleven hours earlier with a box of donuts in his hand, and he’d smiled to himself because even though he’d been gone less than half an hour, he was looking forward to seeing Sylvie. Now Kent stood by his arm, and William didn’t go near the kitchen. He wouldn’t go into the bedroom either. He told Kent he would sleep in his clothes on the couch, and his friend nodded. Kent got him a

glass of water and handed him a pill. “This will let you sleep,” he said, and William swallowed it.

The next morning he woke, groggy, and slid his feet to the floor. He sat up, a movement that required all the energy he had. He looked in the direction of the landscape Cecelia had painted but couldn’t take it in. He inhaled and exhaled air that tasted like dread. He didn’t want to inhabit a day without Sylvie, and yet here he was.

Kent said, “Where are your pills?” and William told him. He took the daily medication Kent put in his hand.

“Things have to be decided,” Kent said. “About the funeral. We’re going to go to the twins’ houses.” He hesitated. “I had some messages on my phone last night from work. Are you listening to me?” Kent’s tone was gentle.

William looked at him.

“Apparently, Alice showed up at the facility yesterday. To see you.”

“Alice?” William said.

“She got here while we were at the hospital. She slept at Cecelia’s last night. William, I don’t know if this is good or bad.”

William nodded, because Kent was being honest. The doctor rarely voiced uncertainty. “I don’t know her at all,” William said, and pictured the image of his daughter from the mural wall. A ten-year-old girl with a shy smile. “I don’t know one thing about her.” He felt like he was explaining that Alice was a test he hadn’t studied for and that he’d never had access to the necessary papers or books to begin to prepare.

But he also thought: Sylvie wanted Alice. William knew that Sylvie had loved Alice as a baby. She’d spent her adulthood longing for Julia and her niece. Alice had now arrived, and the person who’d wanted her wasn’t here. William shuddered. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, and stood up.

“I think it does matter,” Kent said. He looked down at his phone and said, with a tinge of amusement, “Emeline says Alice is six foot

one. She’s not a baby you can drop or harm anymore, William. She’s a grown woman.”

William pictured a giant gleaming lamp and had to squint his eyes against the light. He was standing in a foggy darkness. Something in him didn’t turn away from the light, though. He was done running away.

They stopped at a coffee shop on the way to the super-duplex, and Gus and Washington met them there. They patted William on the back but didn’t say anything except hello. When they were closer to the twins’ houses, Arash climbed out of a nearby cab. It was a mild November day; the men all wore coats but left them unzipped. William was unaware of the temperature or the bright sky overhead. He took in his friends’ presence with a nod. Kent had clearly summoned these men so William could be part of a team on a day when he was no longer part of a marriage. Sylvie would have loved that Kent had done that, William thought, while the men took long strides together down the sidewalk.

Kent opened the door to Cecelia’s house, and they walked inside. Only Cecelia was there, and because William’s senses were heightened to all the machinations that were being performed on his behalf, he realized this was intentional too. This was a briefing stop and a moment for him to catch his breath. Cecelia told them that Rose was on a flight headed to Chicago and would arrive that afternoon. Alice and Julia were next door, with Emeline, Josie, and Izzy.

William nodded, because he couldn’t say, No, thank you, and leave. Sylvie wouldn’t want him to. He followed his friends and Cecelia out the back door, across the yard, and through the back door of Emeline’s house. The air inside smelled of coffee and baby powder. They were in the hallway, surrounded by Cecelia’s portraits, when the doorbell rang, and so all the women were in motion when the men entered the open living room and kitchen. A baby was crying, and a teenage boy was in the doorway, holding a giant paper

bag with the word Bagels written on the side, and Emeline was searching in her purse for cash. At one edge of his view, William registered a very tall, blond young woman, and on the other side of the room, his ex-wife. He found himself walking toward Julia, perhaps because he knew what to say to her and because she played a small role in his distress. He said, “Could we talk?”

She seemed startled but nodded, and they moved to the kitchen area. It was strange to stand so close to Julia. He hadn’t seen her for twenty-five years, and although she looked familiar, Julia no longer resembled his memory of the woman he’d married. Was it possible that her face had changed? Not hardened but solidified. He’d known her in the softness of her youth. Her curls were still the most ferocious of any of the sisters, but there was no wildness in them, even with her hair down. William was aware that he was looking at her partly because he wasn’t yet ready to look at his daughter. Sylvie had left every room in his life, and Alice was here; the shuffle of bodies was almost unbearable.

He said, “Why didn’t you come? I told you that she needed you.” “I did,” Julia said. “I saw her twice.”

He tried to register this. Sylvie had seen Julia? He felt a pressure on his chest, as if he were being tackled by relief. He sat down in the nearest kitchen chair. The pressure was behind his eyes too. He hadn’t seen this coming, but he hadn’t seen any of this coming. He’d known his wife was dying, but he hadn’t expected her to die.

“Do you need some water?” Julia said.

He found a glass of water in his hand. He was aware that everyone was watching him now. This wasn’t a private conversation. Everyone in this room, except perhaps Alice, was wrecked and breathless with grief. They were unable to pretend to chat with one another. They could only listen and hope that he would be okay, because if that was possible, anything was.

“She wanted to keep our visits a secret,” Julia said. “I’m sure she would have told you eventually, but it seemed to tickle her that we

could see each other without anyone knowing. We went to a movie together not that long ago. I flew in and out of the city for a few hours each time. Emeline and Cecelia didn’t know either, until this morning.”

Long ago, William had written into his manuscript: It should have been me, not her. He’d been thinking of his sister at the time, but he would have willingly died yesterday, or this minute, if it could have saved Sylvie. A strangled longing filled him. If he had died, perhaps Sylvie would still be here. Or, perhaps, he could be with her wherever she was. William wanted to cup his hands again, to hold close his love for his wife, to hold close her love for him.

That wasn’t possible, though. It was too late. He’d opened his hands weeks ago and let everything out. All three of his wife’s sisters were near him now, their foreheads furrowed with concern, their curls untamed. William knew that Sylvie had spent time with Julia. The two sisters had reconciled; they’d loved each other not only in the past but in Sylvie’s final days. They’d fixed what had been broken between them, which meant his wife had found wholeness. Sylvie had gotten what she needed, and this made it possible for him to take another breath.

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