The man walking along the gravel path looks too young to be here. He doesn’t have wrinkles on his face and his hair is still a roasted chestnut brown and full of boyish curls. He needs a haircut. It makes me smile. This visitor knows his path well. He bobs and weaves through the maze of stones. It’s almost picture perfect as bright Autumn leaves tumble all around him. I still have this fantasy of him dropping his grandmother’s wicker picnic basket and twirling as the orchestra swells around him. He doesn’t. Instead, he just kept marching on, his head held high. As he approaches his destination, he sets his belongings on the green, green grass. I take a deep breath with him as he carefully unfolds the red checker blanket and lays it on the grass. He dances around it, smoothing each corner out perfectly before opening his basket. I reflexively lean forward, pressing my nose to the monitor to try and steal a peek at what he’s tucked away for us. I see a bottle of wine from our favorite local vineyard. It’s blueberry, my favorite. The corners of my mouth turn up slowly at the glass cups he packed-only he would have the courage to pack glass on a picnic. If I had been there, it would have been a fight. I would have proclaimed that they’d shatter and ruin the rest of the picnic. His stubborn self would dig in and decide, out of spite, that this is the hill to die on. And ultimately, he’d win. He always wins.
I watch my husband as he unpacks the basket carefully setting sandwiches and chips out onto the blanket. I sit back as he takes a seat and pulls a second blue blanket around his shoulder. My fingers reach for him and my heart breaks as I realize for the 260th time that I can’t take his cold away. He pops the cork on the bottle and pours us both a hearty glass. The deep purple liquid swirls slightly and he inhales the aroma of the alcohol before taking a deep sip. It’s his routine. This is the 260th glass of blueberry wine- the 260th picnic. “Hi, Sweetheart,” he greets me and his voice is forlorn. “I miss you,” he says as he looks to the sky. “But you know that,” he chuckles, but it’s wry and fades quickly as I see him sniffle.
“Please don’t cry,” I whisper. And then I take it back. It’s healthy for him to have emotions. It’s healthy to express them. But I can’t wipe his tears anymore and that breaks my heart. I watch as he stuffs his sandwich into his mouth. He’s literally eating his feelings. This makes me laugh, softly. It echoes off the snow white walls of the room I am currently confined in.
“I put tomato in yours,” he mumbles because his mouth is still full of bread, Colby Jack cheese, Spam, and lettuce.
“That was big of you,” I respond.
“I know, I know, it was big of me. ‘Cause, you know, I hate tomatoes. Don’t know how you can eat the stuff. All slimy. All juicy,” he says to the blue sky and takes frowns at his lap before taking another bite. “And not juicy in like, the good way, Babes,” he gets a real serious look on his face-the smile fades from his face and I can intently stare into his Betsy the Cow colored eyes, “In the bad way. Too messy, too.” He finishes his sandwich and reaches for a bag of chips. They crinkle as he dives in and it makes me laugh.
“Still not eating your food together, are you?” I joke.
“Bet you're laughing at me up there because I eat my sandwich first and then my chips. You’d be snackin’ on a little sandwich here,” he moves along to his words dramatically placing his hands on the grass to the left of him, “A few chips there,” he bounces to the grass on the right and then leans back on his palms. “Disgusting,” he says while shaking his head, but I swear I can see him smile again.
“The food just gets mixed up in your tummy, anyway!” We exclaim these words at the same time. I love the sound of my voice with his and it sends shivers down my spine. Both of us take a deep breath in. This is how I know he knows I’m still with him. This moment right here. I watch him finish his chips and then open the basket one more time. He pulls out a pack of cookies. He places two on the blanket across from himself, next to my Turkey sandwich and bag of chips. “You get two and I get three ‘cause, you know…” he lets the words drop off.
“I know,” I whisper.
“‘Spose now you’re wonderin’ how I am. I’m better, Baby. Better than last week,” he sighs. “Work’s been slowin’ down, as you can imagine. So I’ve been to the range to site in that new scope,” he smiles mischievously. “Don’t look at me like that, you ain’t around to tell me not to spend my whole paycheck on my toys, so I’m gonna. Plus, I drew an elk tag and a bear tag. I gotta be prepared, honey!” He throws his arms up as if I am literally in front of him arguing now. “Yeah, yeah, all the bills are paid. Don’t worry, my love,” he assures me. This is the part where he’d cup my chin in his hands and I’d feel the well earned callouses from a long hot summer working. If I was there. If I was there. “Your sister’s doin’ good. Don’t like planning the weddin’ withoutcha, but you know,” he sighs and polishes off his last cookie.
“I know,” I tell him and lean my face closer to the monitor. I miss him. I want to reach out and interlace my fingers with his, just one more time. I feel the tears coming on and swallow the stone in my throat. “Her dress ain’t gonna be as pretty as yours was, o’course. I mean, how could it?” he asks. “It’s all,” he waves his hands in the air, a confused man who was overwhelmed when he was the groom, “Floofy. I guess. Lacy and shit,” he grumbles and finishes his glass of wine. “You gonna finish that,” he points a finger at my glass. “I’ll help you out, Babes,” he reaches across the blanket and snags my glass between his index and middle finger. His thumb rests on the bottom and provides support. I watch him take a sip and smile knowing exactly what those lips would taste like. If only I could taste them. He clears his throat and sits up straight. He gathers up the trash and says, “Anyway, it’s outdoors at this like, wolf sanctuary. Your parents invited me, but I don’t know if I’m gonna go.”
“You should go. I want you to go,” I urge him.
“Maybe you’d want me to go. Stay close with all of your family. But,” he lets the trash fall from his hands into the basket and he pops a reusable rubber cork on the top of the bottle. I watch him slump forward, his shoulders pulling his whole body into himself. I spot a few grey hairs cropping up along the crown of his head. As I reposition myself in my chair I also notice a couple crows feet and a frown line. “Not a frown line,” my voice is full of defeat.
“It’s just hard, Baby. Just hard,” his head is tilted so his chin can rest on his chest and the words are muffled, directed into his lap, not at me. “Gotta tell you about somethin’,” his words are soft. They’re full of an ocean of sadness. “I met someone,” he tells me and I feel my heart break. It’s slow and painful. Time seems to stop like in an action movie when the main character saves the girl in the skimpy red dress. But that’s not fair because everyone wants time to stop at that moment. I just want to jump ahead, press fast forward. Instead, tears roll down my cheeks. They’re hot, heavy boulders falling, falling, falling. “Can’t say if you’d like her,” my husband admits.
“Stop, stop, stop!” I scream. I’m standing up, pushing the chair over. It tumbles down and shatters upon impact.
“But I like her,” he confesses, “A lot.” His words hang heavy in the air and I collapsed in on myself on the floor, my left palm against the monitor, reaching for him one last time. “Don’t really know how this part goes, but I’m thinkin’ maybe,” he pauses and clears his throat. He finishes my glass of wine. “Maybe, I gotta stop comin’ here each week. Maybe it ain’t so good for me, anymore,” his voice fades away from me. Its deep, sexy southern drawl becomes an echo in a tunnel. I begin searching the monitor for buttons expecting to find what I might on a TV- a pause button, volume buttons, anything. My fingers claw at the glass, but to no avail. The sobs I was so desperately trying to hold back come forwards like a tsunami. My screams and cries of anguish fill the whole room, fill my whole soul. It feels like forever- the time it takes for all of that sadness to fall out of me. I quiet down to a whimper like a terrified puppy. “Baby, please...I just...please,” I plead softly. But my words aren’t meant to be heard. “I...I need you,” I stutter. “Who? Who’s gonna bring me wine? Make me laugh up here? Who?” I sound like an owl, calling into the deep night of loss. When I pick myself back up, the chair returns. The monitor turns back on and my husband is still perched beneath my head stone, wrapped in the blue blanket made of Alpaca fiber his mother got us for our first Christmas together.
“Maybe you need me,” he says. The audio is clear and loud. I sit up and wipe my face furiously. The image of those grey hairs at 35, the crows feet, the frown line, flashes into my mind, into my heart.
“I get it,” my voice is not my own. It is deep. It is hollow. It cracks from the strain of my pain.
“I can’t just stop. You’d be lost without me. I’d be lost without you,” the words leave his mouth and wisps of his breath fill the crisp air. He leans against my headstone, an action he hadn’t done in four years, not since the first picnic. The sun begins to set. Deep beams of gold begin to surround him. I feel my heart begin to race as I notice the deep bags beneath his eyes. I watch them slowly close and I cry out, “I give you permission. I give you permission. I give you permission.”