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Posted: Jul 23 2015, 06:09 PM
Joined: 21-February 11
She read her book as best she could, with the churlish one o'clock sunlight turning the white spaces of the pages into blinding snowbanks. The black letters seemed to shrink and vanish, and it was harder than ever to focus; her mind was not really with the book to begin with. The book was not a book: it was actually a shield, a prop, an anchor, something to hold on to while she waited for one-fifteen, or one-twenty, or one-whenever. It was a feat in itself to post herself on this stone bench outside of this building, and Dahlia felt she needed all the support she could get. She had been offered very little.
With effort, she was able to read a page at a time, though sometimes she stared without reading, only thinking. Summer had faded around her, though it had yet to surrender entirely to fall. The humidity of August rain had left the air, and crisp September opened its arms wide. Today was a cold day, even with the sun, and she had her maroon coat buttoned up to her neck, her hands hidden in matching gloves. Today was a day off for her, so she could enjoy wearing something different for once. She had curled her black hair today. It was almost enough to make her feel human.
It was difficult to feel that way, with the dark clouds of her thoughts rolling over her mind. It was difficult to feel human, as she imagined it should feel, between the many monotonies and banalities of middle-class life. She was not old at all, but she felt old, and was horrified by it. She was horrified by the feeling that life and time were slipping away from her, that they were abandoning her, and she would be left all alone, the way Adrien had left her.
At first, Dahlia couldn't help but feel glad to be rid of him. He had grown heavier, not in body but in mind and spirit, deliberately burdening himself with more and more knowledge, more and more thoughts, more and more ideas, until he was sharp at almost every edge and weighed more than minds were meant to weigh. Without him, she felt free of her biggest critic, her harshest judge, and her neediest patient. There was no one else that had so forcefully obliged her to consider unpleasant things about herself, and no one whose demands constrained her so stringently. Life without Adrien was easy and light.
That was the thing of it -- it was too easy, it was too light. Sometimes she felt like she was going to float away, or disappear. The weight of him made time slow down; his thoughts of her, and her knowing of his thoughts, confirmed that she existed.
Between one and two o'clock, Adrien would come out of his office for lunch, if he stuck to his habits. Habit demanded he lunch at a certain hour, come from a certain place, and leave by a certain door, where she could look at him and know that he was alive, yet not be obliged to speak to him. If she spoke to him, she was afraid of what she would say. She was afraid of what he would say, for in their final days, he had become so unlike the man she had known that his anguish had seemed unreal, like an actor playing at suffering. Adrien had a bad habit of melodramatic fits, and she had believed he would come out of this fit just the same.
He had not. He had left.
It was one oh-nine. She caught a flicker of motion from the edge of her peripheral vision; she looked up. Looking up was a mistake, as she met the eyes of Walter Haroldson, who came to a full stop on the steps descending from the psychology building. He stared at her bluntly, and she felt him continuing to stare even as she dropped her eyes. Dahlia hoped that he would ignore her and walk past her.
Of all Adrien's friends ('friends' being a loose term, as he collected people and their attention the way other manic sorts collected buttons or postcards), Walter was one that Dahlia found particularly insufferable, because she found him extremely boring. From Adrien's descriptions and recollections of him, Walter housed a keen mind and a kind heart in that fat body, as well as that peculiar tendency towards loyalty, which Adrien sought after more than any other virtue. But with Dahlia, Walter was merely reticent, a man of few words and no jokes, no matter how she tried to charm him. Dahlia felt that Walter had never quite regarded her as Adrien's queen, but as the queen on the opposite side of the board: husband and wife were diametrically opposed, black and white, and Walter himself was a pawn that would live at the hands of one, and die by the hand of the other.
Naturally, he stopped to talk to her.
"Good afternoon, Dahlia." His tone was polite, and civility obliged her to look up. The smile she offered him was very forced.
"Good afternoon, Walter."
Walter rocked back on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back. He seemed to consider his words a moment, before he told her gently, "He went out the other door, about ten minutes ago."
She was angry immediately, but hoped that fury's telltale flush did not rush to her cheeks. "Why do you assume I was waiting for him? We have mutual friends here."
Walter shrugged, and looked away down the sidewalk, towards the library. It was a short, uphill hike to the college's largest library, as well as a beloved hotdog stand that offered fresh-daily lemonade. Dahlia maliciously imagined Walter was considering the hot dogs.
"He has that knack," Walter said slowly. "Getting people to wait on him."
"You would know," she said.
He shrugged again, and did not look offended. "I would. I just thought you should know. Goodbye, Dahlia." And with that, he went off towards the library. She watched him go; he did not stop to buy a hot dog. She hated him.
There was nothing left to do, then, except to read her book another twenty minutes, in case Walter came back this way. As it happened, some of her old mutual friends did pass that way, and they stopped to talk to her. They were all very happy to see her, and delighted to exchange chit-chat and recent news, though not one of them inquired into her relations with Adrien. Again she felt like a piece on the opposite side of the chess board, up against Adrien's bishops, knights, and rooks. They had nothing particularly against her, but she was on one side of the board and they were on the other, and Adrien was certain to hear of her conversations with them in one way or another. If it came down to it, and Adrien disliked those conversations, she felt they could turn against her, without the least bit of remorse.
She was held hostage by the chess pieces in turn, until two thirty-six, at which point she broke away on the pretense of another engagement. It appeared Adrien would not come in through this door either.
They had met when Adrien was dying. He was a monthly visitor on the oncology floor, and he gained a reputation of being simultaneously friendly but unavailable, clever but adrift in his own sense of self, the lone captain and passenger of his own little sailboat. Dahlia heard about him before she ever met him herself, going by the hearsay of the nurses. They repeated jokes they did not understand; she got them, and laughed. Then her long-term boyfriend broke up with her, and Dahlia decided to meet the comedian herself.
He was handsome, in a preppy, educated way: he kept his hair long and side swept, though it was thinning as he brushed it out, and he wore reading glasses that he was too young to really need. When she came in, he was reading. Adrien looked up and smiled, but then his eyes dropped, and he did not speak. He was reading a book of short stories by Vonnegut. To break the silence, she laughed, softly, as she wheeled her tray to his IV stand.
He stopped, and looked at her again. "Did the ghost in the room tell you a joke?"
She smiled at him. "I didn't take you for a misogynist."
"I'm not," he said. "I love women. Women ought to rule the world, and it would be a better place for it."
"Then why Vonnegut?"
Adrien laid the book down on his lap as she picked up a syringe. She felt his attention focus on her; it felt like a searchlight, with heat and consequence. "Do you have any friends that you keep for one express purpose?"
"That's a very cynical view to have about friends."
"Well, I don't keep screwdrivers to put nails into boards, and I don't read Vonnegut to enlighten myself on the spirits of women." He leaned forwards and craned his neck. His eyes scanned the vials on the little metal tray. "Any morphine there?"
"Are you in pain?"
"I've been in pain ever since the day I was born. But now so more than ever."
"You'll have to speak with your doctor about that."
He sighed, and leaned back against his pillows. "Mmmmm. What was your name again?"
"Did you know there are fourteen different groups of dahlias, as recognized by Royal Horticultural Society?"
"I didn't," she answered, slipping the tip of the needle into the injection port. Her eyes flicked away from the port to his face, back and forth.
"You can be so many things when you're a dahlia." He lowered his voice, giving his words further weight. "You can be almost anything."
"And still be a dahlia?"
"That's the beauty of dahlias."
She met his eyes. The glitter in them told her he was not referring to the flowers. She lowered the needle, and tried not to smile.
"Will you ask my doctor to come see me?" he inquired. "I want to ask about that morphine."
"I'll let the doctor know."
"Come see me again?" He arched his eyebrows at her, and tapped at the book on his lap. "I do accept book recommendations."
"I'll see," she said, as she rearranged her tray and headed for the door. But she had known, much sooner than Adrien had, that she cared about him, wanted to care for him, that she would come back for as long as she could, until he died.
Only, Adrien hadn't died. He had received permission from his doctor for the morphine, and he did fall into a habit of asking for Dahlia, and only for Dahlia, and when he didn't die, he came back for her, with armfuls of different dahlias and a dark hunger in his eyes.
It was one o'clock again outside the psychology building. She was smarter this time, bringing her e-reader and headphones, the better to appear completely engrossed with her present activity. It had been harder to come back; a week had passed before she could make herself go.
When she walked down the Self Help aisle of the local chain bookstore, the spines whispered of her right to do as she wanted, to escape anyone who did not uplift or cherish her. In her fiction novels, the women were smart and funny and brave, and they left men who were coarse or rude or cruel. She imagined her decisions as plot points, and her life as a novel; as a character, Dahlia was not sure if she liked herself. Her story would be better if she left Adrien forever, if she closed that chapter on her life and found someone to float away with. There were other forevers out there for her. She could stand up, walk away from this bench, and go looking for them.
Then why was she waiting?
She flipped through the articles on her news aggregator, interested in none of them. The minutes dragged on; the day was warmer, and the sun felt oppressive on her skin.
But he came out today. She glanced up, and saw him coming down, tall and lanky and scrolling through something on his smart phone, his bag over one shoulder and his head cocked to the side. He stopped halfway down the steps and looked around, not in a way that implied he was looking for anyone in particular, but that he wanted to recognize where he was, and the state of the day, and any other detail that might prompt an interesting chain of thought. Adrien saw her as he took in the background, and then there they were, looking at each other.
When he looked at her, Dahlia knew that she was selfish. In a moment, she remembered why she hadn't stopped the morphine, why for so long there she had never felt a reason to stop: because there were pieces of him she wanted to keep all to herself, as many pieces as possible, and she had used the hunger and sadness of his soul to chisel away those pieces and keep them. She had made him need her, and then resented him for his neediness. When he looked at her, she could not feel sorry.
Standing on the steps, he stared at her a minute, looking away towards the library before looking back again. She could see the gears turning in his head. He was a character in his own story too, wrestling with how he felt versus how he thought his better self would feel. She knew he was vain, and a vain man would think that the only reason she could ever be here was to talk to him, whether they had ten mutual friends or ten thousand. And if she was here to talk to him, the only sensible thing he could do was to talk to her.
Pride won out, and he rushed down the steps and towards the library, without coming over to the bench. She watched his shoulders recede stubbornly; Adrien refused to look back, knowing it would only signal regret. She watched him until he turned the corner, out of sight. Then she tucked her e-reader into her purse, and stood.
Walter was right. She could wait.