by Moe Cidaly | Read by John Sackville | Published on August 3, 2016
The Many Colors of Autumn
Our house was not small enough for the sound of the key in the lock to reach her, nor big enough to keep her voice from reaching me. Besides, it was midnight; she did not expect me to come home until morning—a migraine had forced me home from work early—and I didn’t want to wake her up. I was too careful not to make a sound and she was too careless of her voice. I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but as I reached the bedroom, hunting for painkillers, I could hear her talking on the phone.
“We don’t have much time; I’ll be done in two weeks… How can you be fine with that? I’d rather stay in a hotel than here… I can’t when I don’t have to, not even for an hour... You know what, I’ll rent the place whether you like it or not…”
I listened as I crept up the stairs and waited outside the bedroom. I never was a man of confrontation, so when I’d heard enough, I left the house as soundlessly as I’d entered it to return to my car in the parking lot.
We were both immigrants in Norway and felt lucky to be there, for the future seemed more promising there than in my Iran and her Belarus. We were university students when we met. I was about to finish a nursing course and she’d just started a sociology degree. Soon after that, I found a job in a hospital, taking care of patients who were suffering from paralysis. She wasn’t as lucky as me though: she finished her studies but couldn’t find employment and had to return home. By then, I held Norwegian citizenship and we wanted to stay together. So we got married.
And life was fine, until something had changed in her. We were settled; I was thinking about having a child but she felt it was too soon. She gave up on finding the kind of job she hoped for. She found a job in a library though, but before long she grew indifferent and whenever we talked about it we ended up arguing. And it really didn’t come as a surprise when she told me she’d quit. She then started to change jobs frequently. And I was blind not to realise she was feeling unfulfilled.
But now, all she had to do was to stay married to me for “two more weeks” to obtain her permanent residence permit. And according to her conversation, after getting the permission, she planned to file for a divorce and move in with some secret boyfriend—a foreigner, seeing as they had been speaking English. Maybe he was counting on her citizenship to obtain his.
I sat in the car, started the engine and turned on the heater. It was snowing and the sight of the snowflakes falling down on the windshield made me shiver. I was beginning to feel depressed. Then I remembered Stefan’s poetry book. The old man was a patient in the hospital I worked in. A stroke had made him fragile and he was unable to move or even speak. I was his nurse so it didn’t take long for me to learn from his doctor that Stefan was a retired literature teacher and a poet. The old man’s daughter once mentioned something about a book he’d written being published years ago. I never conversed with the girl, but I liked seeing her reading books to her father from time to time. I admit I felt sad for him too: it must have been torture, not being able to write. There must have been thousands of words trapped in his head and he couldn’t express them. And one day, when I was in a bookshop, it occurred to me to ask the bookseller about Stefan Haugen. He hadn’t heard the name but he searched in his database and the name suggested only a poetry collection: The Dance of a Falling Leaf. He ordered it for me, and I soon had a copy.
It was a rainy, autumn day and I was sitting in a café when I read his poetry for the first time. I never knew much about poetry but there was something behind his words and verses I could feel. What he did with words was similar to what Pollock did with those drops of paint: he was not trying to send a message or teach a lesson or preach. His poetry was an honest effort to express his most sincere emotions; exactly the things every human being had in common.
I read the book from cover to cover. Outside the window I could see some unusually orange trees, the same color as a tangerine and their leaves were so orange that I wished to peel them off: exactly what the wind was doing. The sight made the café look stuffy. I wanted to go out, to get wet and cold, and feel the wind against my face and breathe; before it became an impossible dream, as it was for Stefan.
After that I started to talk to him every day. I told him that I’d bought his book. I hoped he felt that, even though he was caged in his body, he had found a new friend.
The book usually helped when I was depressed. There was a time I used to keep it in the glove box but when I checked, I couldn’t find it there. It was long since the last time I had seen it. Then I remembered I’d put it in a bookshelf in the house. Anyway, sympathy was not what I need, I thought. Sleep was.
When I woke up in the car it was morning. It wasn’t snowing anymore, the sun was shining, and my headache was gone. I locked the car, put a little bit of the snow from the windshield in my mouth, and went home. She wasn’t there. I was glad. I didn’t want to be greeted with a kiss and delicate words when I knew what was really on her mind. And I didn’t want to have to pretend.
I went to the bedroom to get some sleep after the uncomfortable night in the car. When I saw the bed I wondered how many times she brought him to it when I was at work. I remembered the last time we slept together and felt sick at the thought that our entire relationship had been a transaction for her residency permit. It was frustrating not knowing for how long it’d been like this. From the day I found a job, or only recently? But the thing that bothered me most was the stupid feeling of being a modern age Charles Bovary: my wife was having an affair right under my nose.
I laid on the couch instead. The thoughts kept coming. I felt like we were strangers: two people passing one another on a pavement, only it took longer for us to go by. Then my eyes caught sight of the bookshelf and I remembered Stefan’s book again. I found it there, then left the house.
When I got to the hospital, my workload didn’t let me think about anything for a couple of hours. I went to check on my patients, carrying the poetry book in the pocket of my scrubs. I entered Stefan’s room and monitored the vent. I looked at his bald head and the heart shape of his gaunt face; the Roman nose, thin lips, and sparse eyebrows. He looked wise and seemed so calm, as if he was experiencing the most profound, peaceful moment of his life. He was beautiful; like a falling leaf dancing for the last time before kissing the soil. As if seeking a moment of contemplation, I took out the book, sat silently on the chair next to the window and read some verses in the room’s dime light. When I looked at him again it seemed as if the ventilator and all those tubes around him were just stalks and I could be the breeze that would detach the dry leaf from the branch of life. The feeling wasn’t new: those horrible days when I saw him in a critical condition, struggling for his life, I often caught myself wishing him dead. But this time I felt pathetic: a man making decisions on another man’s life should have already made up his mind about his own. A glimpse at my own relationship with my wife was enough to tell that I was not that man.
For the whole week, I thought about what my next step would be. At first I considered refusing to sign her papers. The fact that she had cheated on me and used me made me mad. But one night, when I went to monitor Stefan again, I noticed his eyes twinkling in the dark of the room. I checked him over; everything was as usual, only he was sleepless. I wanted to talk to him. I wasn’t sure for his sake or for mine. Maybe I just wanted the opportunity of talking to someone who could only listen to me without saying a word. I wanted to tell him everything about my life, my wife, and about the decision I wanted to make. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to bore him, make him curse me silently for being pathetic, or disturb his peace. I stood there looking at him, thinking what he would do if he were in my shoes. Surely he was a good person. He was a poet. I would let her get her wish.
Night shifts were a relief, I thought, every time I walked the corridors of the quiet hospital. It was a good thing for both of us; when I was home, she was out; and when she was home, I was out. It was not something new to us – another reason we’d grown apart.
But a week later I changed to the day shift. Still confused, I dreaded the thought of seeing her at home after I’d finished, so I checked in at a hotel and lied to her: said I was doing night shifts until the day we signing the papers. She was relieved and happy; even said something about celebrating together.
One other thing happened during that week. I didn’t realise, but the night I read Stefan’s book in his room, I left it on the window sill. His daughter must have seen it there. The first time she saw me in the dayshift, I was injecting some medication into Stefan’s IV bag. She leaned her slender figure against the sill with her arms crossed. Her short blond hair gave her a cherub-like face; cute and innocent. The book was still where I left it.
“The doctor thinks the book belongs to you,” she said to me, looking at it with a faint smile.
“That is true,” I told her.
“Have you read it? What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful… written honestly.”
Just then her phone rang and she answered it. I watched her beautiful smile as spoke on the phone, but as soon as she hung-up, her smile ended too, as if pressing the button ended the expression as much as the connection.
It was snowing the day I saw my wife for the first time in almost two weeks—to sign the papers. I was a bit late. I sensed she was nervous as she waited outside the building entrance, looking anxiously around for me. I suddenly grew supportive.
“This is your day, I guess,” I said with a smile. “Your turn, finally. Congrats.”
“Thanks to you,” she smiled back and the tension was gone.
For a few seconds I wanted to tell her that I knew everything. But the twinkle in her eyes reminded me of Stefan. What’s the point? I asked myself. And all the answers narrowed down to either making her appreciate me or disparage herself. What would Stefan think of that?
We stood so close that the fog of our breath blended. Then she hugged me. I was reluctant, thinking that her boyfriend might be somewhere near, watching. But the pressure of her arms around my back and her cheek against my chest told me that she really was doing it out of gratitude; that she really meant it. It was a moment of honesty between us.
I signed the documents. As soon as we stepped out of the office she started to jump up and down, still hugging my neck, which kind of hurt. I wanted to walk her to the subway station, but again I thought about her boyfriend who was probably waiting for me to get lost and join her. I told her I was in a hurry to get back to work.
“See you tonight then,” she said.
“Sure.” It felt good she hadn’t brought up the “celebrating together” thing again.
It was still snowing when I got home. She was gone, had packed her things and left a letter explaining that she was leaving me, that her solicitors would take care of the divorce process, and asking me not to call her or bother her at her work. I looked at the empty wardrobe and the gaps left by the things she took away with her. I couldn’t stay there. Not even Stefan’s poetry could help this time.
Seven months later we were officially divorced. She hadn’t claimed anything. I felt like I’d fulfilled a duty that I’d been neglecting for a long time: I interred a dead love that would have started to rot before my eyes if I’d kept it unburied for one more second. I was in peace and hoped the same for her.
Ten months after she left me, Stefan went too. The sight of his neat, empty bed in the room turned the morning light into something bittersweet. A couple of days later, in the evening, I found the cherub-face beauty waiting for me in the hospital corridor.
“They make me feel better. I think you will enjoy them too,” she said as she handed me a neat bunch of papers.
“What is this?”
“A copy of my father’s unpublished poems. I think of you as the last friend he made in this world and the most deserving person to read them,” she answered, glancing down at the manuscripts.
“I would consider it an honor,” I said. After a brief moment of silence I asked, “But why didn’t he publish them?”
“He changed his mind about it after he published his first book. He felt he was not writing for himself anymore, or for the sake of writing, but for getting published, applauded and positive reviews.”
I nodded. When I heard what she’d said I remembered those “thousands of words trapped” in the old poet’s head. I smiled; maybe they were not trapped at all.
We had a cup of coffee in the hospital gardens. I walked her to the gate. After she had gone, I watched the fading silver gray light of the sky through the black silhouettes of tree branches. It was not dark yet, and I was not sad anymore.