Three days days after he had buried her, he sat there now on the bedroom floor, shirtless and gasping for air. It was a cold night, and the wooden doors of the armoire in front of him swung gently to the breeze that crept in through the open window. His barely blinking eyes were wide open and the bottle of cheap whiskey next to him was all but empty.
The old man ruffled his ever-thinning hair and scratched his sparse shadow of a beard. He gazed, like he had a hundred times over the past hour, at the unruly stacks of books, papers and magazines that occupied the first three shelves of the armoire. Then, his eyes fell to the bottom shelf. It was empty. He ruffled his hair and scratched his beard.
Once again, his eyes moved from the top to the bottom with some childish, false hope that what he had lost would somehow magically reappear. He moved forward and waved his hand through the hollow space, as if he was trying to retrieve something. Of course, there was nothing. He then tried to remember what it looked like, not without difficulty, for it had been a while since he had last seen it.
An ornate box upholstered with leather. A box that was a little older than him, its contents more than half a century old, standing for something far, far younger. In it were four diaries he had filled while in college.
A vague memory of how they felt in his hands began to flood his drink-sodden brain. His body trembled as a tear rolled down each cheek. As he recalled what those pages meant to him, his crying became, almost immediately, more pronounced. The sepia-tinted glory days of love, mischief and incessant tobacco smoke were now permanently lost. His hitherto silenced voice finally broke free in shuddering, breathy tones. A few painful minutes later, heaving and sniffling, he paused.
A phantom-like recollection of the smell of the diaries rushed into his nostrils. The striking scent of rosewater and saffron: an unforgettable combination. He had known it for over half a century. A hazy image of a cardboard carton flickered to life in the interior of his mind. He had moved houses, many years ago, and, almost propitiously, the leathered box had been packed with a few bags of cosmetics. One such bag contained a peculiar looking bottle of facial toner, which had, during transportation, shattered and imbued all the contents of the carton with its piercing fragrance. Most things in the carton had, over time, been discarded and erased from the enduring memories of their housemaster, except for the box that contained his diaries. Enough of the liquid had seeped in to indelibly alter the odor of his written past.
The accidental breaking of a bottle had forever fused the archives of his early adulthood with the sweet smell of rosewater and saffron. To him, they were one and the same. He resumed crying abruptly. Yet again, a few painful minutes later, he composed himself, pausing for a second time.
He remembered that he had, being something of an amateur poet, filled the diaries in clumsy free verse. Most of his entries had been mundane campus stories of little significance. They had all melded into one pleasant, indifferentiable mass. However, one story stood out vividly, like a central red rose in a bouquet of whites.
The incident erupted through the annals of his brain. He dearly remembered the first time he had seen her, radiant and brimming with personality in her teal shirt. He had tried to talk to her, a sudden superhuman confidence exploding from within, only to be subdued and brought back to reality by the equally sudden self-consciousness that seizes the heart when it is too close to the person it pangs for. That they had held hands for the first time just a month later was staggering. It had all, somehow, miraculously, worked out.
The old man turned to the bedroom dresser. Atop stood a small glass bottle of rosewater-saffron facial toner, the last bottle that had ever been opened in the house. The last bottle she had ever opened. His eyes then, almost mechanically, moved to the bedside table. An empty plastic container lay on its side, open and lidless. The last bottle of pills she had ever emptied. The only bottle of pills she had ever emptied on the same day.
The old man picked himself up from the hard floor and sullenly walked to the collage of photographs on the wall beside the dresser. There it was, the first ever professional picture they had taken together, their wedding portrait, and there she was, her arm in his, smiling. The old man stared into her eyes, frozen in time for perpetuity, and sighed. He then looked at his own younger self. Marginally handsome, perhaps, but clearly a humble presence beside her. He looked quite presentable in his suit, though. The old man wondered if it would still fit him that well.
He approached his closet and rummaged through his clothes. It did not take him too long to find his wedding jacket. He pulled it out of its hanger and held it up against the brightest lamp in the room as he examined it in silence. Its black had now turned a deep gray, but only the keenest of eyes could have estimated that it was nearly half a century old. He had made a solid sartorial choice when the occasion had called for it, and had taken very good care of it over the years.
In one swift motion, he effortlessly slid into the jacket. He knew, immediately, having lost a lot of weight in the last decade, that it would not fit him as neatly as it had all those years ago. The sleeves had grown so long that little more than his fingertips could now be seen at their ends. A foggy but familiar feeling overcame him as he walked to the dresser mirror and gave himself a customary look. Careful not to get his jacket wet, he wiped the tears off his cheeks with the back of his palm. And then, for the first time in a week, a faint smile peeked through the corners of his lips.
As if a renewed, almost supernatural energy had overwhelmed him, the old man, still in the jacket, walked swiftly around the house and turned out all the lights. He then reached the front door with a pair of keys in his pocket: one for the house and one for his motor scooter.
He remembered how she had initially remarked that a motor scooter was a strange vehicle for an adult to be driving around in. Eventually, however, she grew very fond of it. He had always enjoyed sitting behind her as she drove them both down to the lake at the town’s end. That had been their weekend ritual, and much like the facial toner, it had never changed until a week ago.
He should have sensed that the pain had been too much to take when she had refused to go out that evening.
The old man stepped out of his house, closing the front door behind him. He then promptly locked it and tried to turn the knob, just one time, to ensure that it was secure.
With a newfound serenity in his eyes, he walked to the scooter parked in his driveway, mounted it and started the engine. One final pleasant memory of rosewater and saffron drifted into his body. He felt a gentle shiver, the gratifying kind, run down his spine. He rode the vehicle out of his property, onto the modestly lit street, and pointed it down toward the deep, dark lake that marked the town’s end. This time, he decided, once he was in the water, he would not come out.
He was finally willing to let the jacket get wet.