9th of February

Dissolution

A novel

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“We need to talk,” she said, only minutes after returning from the memorial service for Bobby Roper, the often described father of Bay swimming and iconic if not universally loved long time fixture of the South End Rowing Club. The service had been at the club, the place where she had arranged to meet him at the doorway, those six year ago, after corresponding for several months on an online dating site. Her friends had stood behind the door that day to defend her should the man be not what he had advertised.

“We need to talk,” she said. He knew that nothing good ever follows those four simple yet fearful words. It was February 9th, a day memorialized by Bobby as the Dreaded 9th of February, the day he asserted the dark water was the coldest in the Bay, and on which a long and difficult swim was always organized. Only the bravest swimmers, indifferent to the temperature and conditions, joined the challenge. This day was another challenge, another dreaded 9th of February. He wondered if that irony occurred to her.

Today, too, is February 9th.

“We need to talk, she said, leading him to sit in the dining room on that dreaded 9th of February. “I have fallen out of love with you, and want you to leave.” Her words fell like stones, not thrown or hurled but dropped, heavy and unanticipated as a boulder might loosen and fall from a cliffside on an unexpecting hiker. The house was hers and in cold clinical terms he was being evicted. (I feel the weight in my chest even today one year later, a lifetime later.) The heaviness of abandonment, of rejection, not knowing what to say or what to do on that 9th of February afternoon, weighted him to his chair, took his breath away. Not breathing was one of the ways he had always suppressed emotion at times like this. She had often exhorted him to “breathe!” when speechless he would clam up in anxiety or distress.  He asked her where could he go and her reply was perhaps he could rent a room somewhere in the city, it wasn’t her concern. Take some time, she said, but plan to leave within a month or two. The cold directness of her intention pressed his heart deep into the back of his chest, beyond where breath was formed.

He left the house and walked first to China Beach. The only acceptance he could envision in those first hours was planning an end. The cold water flowing out of the Gate beckoned in a different way that afternoon. Being a strong swimmer he knew it wouldn’t be easy, something had to be added to the endeavor to ensure no change of heart or wasted intention. That had happened once before in his life, when ending was foiled by inconsequential accident, foolish and stupid rather than tragic and final.

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He walked for hours that afternoon on February 9th. It was one of the great pleasures of where they lived that the coastal trail was immediately there, two blocks away from the front door of her house. He walked along the trail curving out and around Land’s End and looked at the water, looked at the westward horizon—he could see the Farallons– wondering how far would he have to swim before cold and fatigue took its toll, before the urge to turn around was past the point of no return. He had always loved swimming and one of the joys she had reintroduced in his life was swimming in the cold open water of San Francisco Bay. That this joy would find another purpose occurred to him as appropriate, as a desire he had long imagined.

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He walked down to the rocky beach where a few years before he had scattered his mother’s ashes, throwing them beyond the rocks as two dolphins suddenly surfaced as though to greet and escort her to another world, a world awaiting him that afternoon. His mother had disliked water, and despite years of lessons in truth couldn’t swim more than a few yards. It wasn’t her wish to be scattered it the sea. He had done it for himself, to be able to look out beyond Mile Rock and know that she was there, waiting.

He knew that day was not to be the day: fear perhaps. Hope perhaps.  But then he didn’t know what he knew except that his life had shifted in a direction he didn’t want, couldn’t imagine, that the woman he had loved, had called his wife, had never been the wife he wanted or imagined but that the calm acceptance of that realization had sustained a fantasy of love and companionship that she had shattered, on that dreaded 9th of February, 2019.

Day moves to evening in San Francisco with a subtle but definite drop in temperature that is felt well before the sky fades to gray. He was cold that afternoon having been out long past a normal Saturday afternoon walk. She texted to ask whether he was coming home. He wondered why she cared. He didn’t answer and thought how sadly and finally inappropriate that word home was. It was her house, from which she only hours before had told him he needed to leave. It was not his home, and the realization that it had never been his home, only his residence granted by her, undercut any remaining shred of sentimentality. She gave and she took away; like her body, like her love, provisional and uncommitted.

He walked back to the house in the last light of that afternoon, not knowing what to expect, what to say or do. That was the beginning of the end, the beginning of extinguished plans, extinguished hopes for the possibility of marriage, extinguished love.

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Today is one year and a lifetime later.

To be continued.

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No voice divine the storm allay’d,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

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