Waving signals that you are not alone
My daughter has fallen in love with a professional hockey player. His name is Dwight and he refers to my daughter as his puck bunny, which I have decided to find cute. Two weeks ago, Dwight invited me to watch the afternoon game, offering a comp, which took the form of a seat in a box, which was a room, really, where I sat at a large window that muffled the sounds of the crowd and provided a superior view of the game.
Also in the room, mostly standing, jiggling peanuts in their fists, tossing them up into their mouths, were a number of angular men who spoke to each other as if they were in a locker room, careful not to look at each other’s privates. They were the sort of men I introduce myself to as Norm rather than Norman. They spoke in a volume that suggested hearing aids. They joshed rather than joked, chuckled rather than laughed. I would guess that up close they smelled of new barbecues—propane, steak.
I had a feeling that the chuckling men would have nodded agreeably to anything I had to say. I could have told them about my apartment’s new door handles, which I had installed that morning, the kind recently approved, now the only ones allowed, by the local building code—no more global turn of the wrist, only a stiff, downward twist—and they would have been pleased. Jocular, I think the word is that describes the ways in which these men spoke. Jockular?
From where I sat, I could see my daughter in the cold seats, near the ice, behind the players’ bench. I watched her watching the game and wondered how it was to see the man she loved slammed repeatedly into the boards. It made me wince, but my daughter only laughed and shook her head.
Between periods, the square-headed men lifted their eyes to a television mounted high on the wall. First the hockey commentators yapped about the game, and then the news followed. The lead story was about Nelson Mandela’s memorial the day before. Apparently, the interpreter for the deaf had translated the dignitaries’ speeches into gibberish. He did not know sign language! The peanut-eating men chuckled as the interpreter churned the air with his hands. I also found the man’s efforts hilarious, but the hilarity thrummed uncomfortably in my veins—it felt more like hysteria.
I couldn’t laugh. Sure, I was troubled by the so-called interpreter’s exploitation of deaf people and his implication that their language was just a bunch of waving about. Mostly, though, I felt exposed; the man was me: he was the flailing man I had become in the wake of Eleanor’s death. And as the square-headed men continued to chuckle, slapping their thighs, moving their arms in imitation of the interpreter, I saw that this was all smoke and mirrors: they, too, had been exposed. We are insufficient muttering lumps. Compared to the cellular lace and molecular castles within us and around us, our lives are negligible nubs. I was suddenly endeared to the players on the ice—small, silent, zooming. They at least were not trying to make sense of the world. They chased a puck. They knew the limits.
It turned out that “our” team won the game. The men of new barbecues high-fived one another, shrugged into their windbreakers and clapped each other on the back as they exited the box. I looked after them wistfully: I would have liked to be clapped on the back, too. I had an urge to call after them, to cry out, my name is actually Norman! As it was, I remained at the window watching the crowd empty from the arena, then the Zamboni spiralling, smoothing out the dashes and dots the skaters had cut into the ice. When the Zamboni came my way, I waved and the driver waved back. Two wires touching.
As I walked home along the darkening streets, my phone vibrated with a text from my daughter: Good game, hey? she asked. Great. Thanks. I answered.
Really, what she said was, We’re going for a beer. Having you, my father, along would squash the mood. And: I’m thinking of you. And my reply? I’ll be OK. And I will not burden you.
I’m glad my daughter has Dwight. You have to start somewhere. After a beer, the two of them will likely go to her or his apartment and fall into bed together. She won’t be careful of the bruises he has just amassed; to her, they will be as dead as words in a language she doesn’t know, a language spoken by others. Dwight, though, will feel the bruises, especially when my daughter’s knee or elbow wakens them. But he won’t wince: he won’t suck in and bring the pain deeper. He’ll ignore it, let it wander off, back from the roadside toward the woods. In these children’s minds deer evaporate into endless wilderness. At my age, I know that forests end, criss-crossed by highways or sputtering into tundra. Above all, pain persists, whining until death answers the door.
If I had ever come home with a bruise like Dwight’s, Eleanor, in our later years, would have lowered her book and reached gently toward it, her fingertip on the darkened skin light as a whisper. And I, aging man with blood pooling, would have returned her venturing with a look of love, love for circumstance as much as for her; the young do not know this doubleness of love.
Though it was late on a Sunday afternoon, city workers were hard at work outside the apartment, their labour lit by flood lamps and truck headlights. There had been a water main break and they had had to peel back the macadam to repair the pipe. Now, they mended the road. A driver hovered the Caterpillar bucket over the break. A worker on the sidewalk raised his hand, motioning the driver to back up. Then he curled his fist to inch him forward. Finally he waggled his hand, small finger and thumb splayed, back and forth, signalling for the driver to shake sand from the bucket. I thought again of the interpreter with his pitiful grunting motions. What was he really saying?
I am alone, dumbstruck.
The best I was ever able to express my love to Eleanor was to say, I can’t tell you how much you mean to me. Since we scattered her ashes I have moaned, sobbed, even whimpered on the floor like a dog, but all my noises vanish into the apartment, leaving neither a rent nor a run. Despite our best efforts, we die shallow in the A section of the dictionary.
When Eleanor and I met, as graduate students, our apartments were two blocks apart. We would turn our lights off and on in the evenings, a yellow code in the darkness that said, Here I am! and Yes! I see you. We were always running to the other’s apartment. I still remember the urgency I felt at times, running, as if Eleanor would vanish if I didn’t get there soon enough. One night, I stepped outside and turned onto the sidewalk to see her already heading my way. She was waving to someone. As soon as Eleanor saw me, she lowered her hand. I turned around, but there was no one there. Eleanor explained later that she would wave to an imaginary person when she felt unsafe. Women get attacked, you know, she said. Waving sends a signal that you aren’t alone.
The Caterpillar growled and beeped and the workers shucked their shovels into the gravel as I fumbled for my keys to the building where Eleanor and I spent our last twenty years. I looked down the sidewalk. It was empty as far as I could see. I waved. It was a full wave made with my entire arm, a wave that could be seen from far away.
After that I climbed the stairs to the apartment and settled down to an evening of reading, across from Eleanor’s chair, which I had not yet moved, and which I force myself to look at periodically, to learn, I suppose, the shape of its emptiness. Our chairs are by the window and I read until the room was dark, until the last evening light had drained from the sky. Then I put down my book and felt my way to bed.