The police found my husband six days after I reported him missing. A couple out sailing spotted his body floating over the San Francisco bay.
The day I learned of my husband's death I was baking a quiche. I stood in the kitchen looking out at the park across the street while listening to the ticking of the timer. A quiche was the only thing I knew how to make properly, and I wanted to get it right. I picked up the timer and stared at the dial, waiting. Then there was a knock on the door.
After the police left my apartment, I sat in the living room in silence. I was afraid to turn on the television, afraid that I might see the couple the police were talking about. I imagined their faces, horrified at what they'd found. I didn't need that; imagining was enough.
I sat there until I thought I smelled smoke. Then I got up and ran into the kitchen.
"You should call this guy," my mother said over the phone. "His name is Dr. Cohen. He'll help you."
"Who says I need help? I've been doing O.K. so far."
"It's been over a year, Andrea. You've got to try to move on." In the background I heard the television. I listened to the muffled voices of two women talking.
"Mom, what's that noise? What are you doing?"
"Oh, nothing," she said. I heard her turn off the television. "Do you have a pen? I'm going to give you Cohen's number."
"O.K.," I said.
"Make sure you call him. In fact, call him today, he might still be in. Will you do that?"
"Do you have a pen? Here's the number. Make sure you write it down."
Dr. Cohen is a fat balding man with round glasses that sit on his nose. He looks at everything but me when he speaks. The first afternoon I met with him I sat in the chair across from his desk. He said I could sit on the couch if I wanted, but that seemed too expected, so I stayed put. This way I could look at him.
"Why do you think your mother recommended me?" he asked.
"Because she's crazy. She thinks I need to be here."
"And you? What do you think?"
"That she's crazy," I said. "Maybe I am too, because I came."
"People come here for other reasons."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Pain, fear, loneliness. You'd be surprised how many people need someone to talk with. There are a lot of lonely people out there."
"Isn't that what bars are for?" I asked. Cohen chuckled a little bit. Watching him laugh, the little double chin jiggling up and down, it made me laugh. He smiled when he saw me loosen up, then told me if I wanted to keep talking I could and if I didn't that was fine too. I didn't, so the two of us spent the rest of the time sitting in silence.
Before I left I booked another meeting with his secretary.
I decided one day to sign up for a weekly cooking class. I picked Thai because, after doing a little research, it was the cheapest one I could find. I went the first day and spent the first hour listening to a woman named Mali—described in my pamphlet as a master chef—tell me how I'll be able to make authentic, mouth-watering Thai dishes by the end of the course. The last thing I remembered cooking was that quiche, which I had forgotten about until now.
Mali told us that the food we would learn to make wasn't westernized, and that for some of us it may be too spicy to eat. She said if we thought we couldn't handle it we could leave now and get our money back. No one left.
Among other things, Mali taught us how to make salmon poached in green curry sauce with Thai eggplant and basil. After that came a calamari salad with lemon grass, mint and lime sauce. Dessert was bananas covered in coconut cream. When we finished, we had the option of sitting down with everyone to eat the creations we made. I asked Mali if she had any take-out boxes so I could go home.
"Go home?" she repeated. "Why would you want to go home now? Stay, eat, enjoy with everyone else."
I told her I felt sick and clutched my stomach. "But I'd really like to take the food home, for later."
"Oh," she said. "Well then, let's see what I can find."
I took the food home and ate it cold that night while watching Letterman's Late Show. I knew it probably didn't taste as good, but I didn't care. I ate it all and fell asleep with the boxes next to me.
I spend most days trying to get myself into a routine. Wake up, make the bed, shower, get dressed, eat a simple breakfast. Work at the office filled the day. I took up knitting in the evenings when I didn't have an appointment with Cohen or cooking with Mali. I made a list of books I wanted to read and started a library of the ones I had. I recorded lavish soap operas and watched them in mini-marathons on the weekends. I took up running.
Yet still there seemed all this time to fill and I was running out of ways to do it.
"Why are you paying me to do nothing?" Dr. Cohen asked, after our third visit.
"You're not doing nothing," I said.
"You're not letting me help you, Andrea."
"I thought you said I didn't have to speak if I didn't want to."
"You don't, I really don't mind. But like I said, I won't be able to help you if you never speak."
"What do you want me to say?"
"Well, for starters, what kind of man was he? Was he happy?"
I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to tell him something other than how my husband liked to listen to Hank Williams while driving. He tried to learn Spanish from a set of cassette tapes left from previous tenants, and I’d listen to him in the living room as he repeated phrases that neither of us understood.
He liked to eat pickles with eggs.
But was he happy?
"No," I finally said, and then I told him how, yesterday, I made stir-fried long beans with roasted chili sauce and steamed jasmine rice. I told him I was learning how to knit a sweater for winter.
"If you want, I could make you one. What's your favorite color?" He didn't answer. I tried looking at him but he kept glancing at the window near me.
I watched as Cohen frowned. Neither of us spoke for awhile after that, until finally before time was up I told him I'd make him a green sweater. It'd match his coloring.
"You know it's July right?" he said. "It's a little early to be making sweaters for winter."
"But it's coming." I said. "Eventually."
My husband was a good enough man. He sold insurance policies and real estate which had earned him enough to take care of both of us. He was always on time, he never forgot a birthday. He hated my cooking, even the bad dishes, never saying a word about it. He took me to plays every other week, and had a decent sense of humor. He was a good man.
But did I know him? Did I know the type of man he was?
He was reliable, I can say that much. He ate Corn Flakes with sliced banana every morning for breakfast. He only liked Volvos because he believed they were the safest. He made it a point to never be late.
And he wasn’t, up until the day he disappeared.
I started cooking Thai dishes at home. Garlic noodles with barbecued red pork. Hot and sour cucumber salad. Coconut tapioca pudding with water chestnuts and strawberries. After a few weeks my kitchen looked like the inside of one of the Thai restaurants downtown.
One of the neighbors in my building knocked on the door. "What is that smell?" he asked. "Whatever you're cooking, it smells delicious."
I didn't invite him in to eat. Instead I made him wait while I went into the kitchen and packed food in a take-out box. I had been saving them from the classes.
When I was a child, a teacher taught us how to feel our pulse. We were supposed to take our middle and index fingers and press hard onto our necks. We had to be silent and still, and all of us sat quiet, waiting to hear our hearts beating, to feel the tender thumping.
I waited the sixty seconds, watching the teacher counting for us. I remember getting nervous about not feeling my heart. I kept moving my hands, trying to find the steady beat. There was nothing.
I spent the rest of the day putting my hands to my neck, frustrated with the fact that I couldn't find my pulse. When I got home, I told my mother, saying, "Mom, I don't have a heart. I can't feel it. It's not there."
She looked at me and said, "Well, of course you have a heart. You may not feel it all the time, but it's there."
"What are you trying to tell me?" Cohen asked. "Do you feel guilty about your husband's death? About what happened?"
"No," I said. "It's not that."
"Then what, Andrea?"
I changed the subject by talking about the sweater. I told him that it was almost done. I told him I was about to start making a scarf to match. I could tell he was upset that I wouldn't talk about the things he wanted, but I knew he would never understand. It wasn't about his death; I felt guilty about my husband's life.
Chicken soup with galangal and kaffir lime leaves. Glazed crispy noodles. Black sweet rice pudding with toasted coconut and sesame.
I was cooking meals all the time now. I ate crispy noodles for breakfast.
The days filled up, and I became so busy I didn't have to think anymore.
My husband's body was found floating over the San Francisco bay. I wondered, did I ever really know him?
Did I even know myself?
I did know the feeling of guilt. It's the opposite of weightlessness.
I'll tell you what I miss: the warmth of his body in the darkness, the sound of his heavy breathing echoing off the walls, the way his skin felt next to mine underneath the sheets—all these things reminding me someone was once with me.
There are nights when I believed he really was there. My eyes would search the room looking, trying to find a silhouette, the silhouette of a man I could have known.
Copyright © LaTanya McQueen 2006.