When you called me to tell me about Charlie, I was weeding the garden, my knees pressed into the soil and the sun sharp on my neck.
I hadn’t seen Charlie in so long, but when you said his name I saw him clearly. We spent a lot of time together once, the three of us, but the time that came to mind as you told me what happened–how you found him–was that trip we took to the Cape. It was the last vacation we took, the two of us, and you asked Charlie to come. You didn’t want him to be alone. I didn’t want him to come with us. Things had been hard for so long, and I thought we needed time alone.
Charlie looked good on that trip. He’d gained weight. He was strong. I watched you watch him swimming the first evening, your eyes always on him, even as we talked, and I thought, this is how it will be.
When you called to tell me about Charlie, I sat back in the dirt and listened to your voice, steady even in grief. I used to love how unflappable you were.
His first year in college, Charlie called you. You were chopping tomatoes for salsa, so you put him on speakerphone. I thought at first he was laughing, but then I realized he was crying. He told you about something he learned in class, a study done decades ago. The scientist tried to measure hope, Charlie said, by timing how long it took rats to drown. He was crying so hard he couldn’t breathe, and you, you were so calm. You took him off speakerphone and went outside to talk him down the way you always did, by asking him to find five red things. “One,” you said, and then, “Four more, you got this, look around.” It was a strategy you picked up from some therapist, something about re-focusing the brain.
Later, getting ready for bed, you told me all about the hope study.
“The scientist put rats in buckets and timed how long it took them to drown,” you told me from the bathroom. “The average rat treaded water for 15 minutes before dying.”
You turned the water on, raising your voice a little to carry over the sound as you told me about the next phase. You said that this time, right before the rats gave up and drowned, the scientist took them out of the buckets and held them for a minute, letting them catch their breath. You paused there, maybe to wipe your mouth on a towel.
“And then he put them back in the bucket and timed them again until they drowned,” you said, coming into the bedroom.
“That’s terrible,” I said, angry at you for telling me this.
“Which part?” You asked, climbing into bed next to me.
“The whole fucking thing,” I said, and then, “How long did they last after the scientist held them?”
“No idea,” you said, “but long enough to forget.”
After you fell asleep, I looked up the experiment on my phone. Some of the rats treaded water for 60 hours before drowning.
When you called to tell me about Charlie, I took my hat off and wiped my face with the back of my dirty hand. I hadn’t heard your voice in almost two years and it entered my body like water.
You told me the first night we met that your world was complicated. I ordered us another bottle of merlot. Everyone’s world is complicated, I told you, putting my hand on your thigh.
“I have a son,” you said, and because I didn’t understand the weight of it all, I laughed, “Is that all you got?”
The first time I met Charlie, after almost a year with you, I thought, maybe it’s not that complicated after all. And then the next week we were in bed after calling in sick and Charlie was at school and the phone rang and I laughed, “Just ignore it,” but you were already reaching for it, swinging your legs out of bed, and the first thing you said, before you even knew who it was, is “I’m here.” And then you talked him down, one red thing at a time, and I sat naked next to you.
But I stayed, didn’t I? I stayed longer than you thought I would.
When you called to tell me about Charlie everything stopped–the sun, the breeze, the ant crawling over my boot, the swaying plants, the clouds, the river, the cardinal, the clock, my breath.
And then everything started back up.
After you told me about Charlie, I didn’t know what to say. I sat there with your voice on speakerphone, staring at the dirt on my fingers. There was so much I wanted to tell you–how Mom has Alzheimer’s, how Denise lost her house in the fire, how I had to put Kimmo down in March, how the bluebirds have come back to nest in the houses you built, how I planted a sea of poppies behind the house, like we always talked about.
I don’t remember what I said. I must have said something. I must have said I’m sorry, or asked if there was anything I could do. I must have offered help, to bring food, to water plants, to call friends. But I just remember the dirt and the heat and your voice.
Charlie sent me a photograph after I left you. It’s black and white, the beach from that last trip. I don’t know when he took it, but the beach is empty. No people, no birds, no dogs, no towels or beach chairs or coolers, just sand turning into water turning into sky, the lines between them barely visible. I printed it, had it framed. I look at it every morning. It’s so beautiful that it hurts.
That’s what I should have told you.