So, I realize there is a huge gap between my last post and this one, but I am going to play the “I work two jobs” card and say inspiration, time, and energy have been really difficult to come by. This is the last part of the story about the tour guide in Key West, a prompt from the journal I bought as a Halloween gift to myself. If you missed parts one through three, I will link them here: part one, part two, part three. Thank you again to my subscribers and those of you who are just now reading my content! Your interest really means a lot to me. Love, Holley.
My husband is dead.
It is the first time I have acknowledged it aloud, in words. When I found him and the pill bottles scattered all over the bathroom sink, the first person I called was my mother. But even to her, I could only say, “Paul is gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
I was crying too hard to explain. That was what made her understand. “Stay on the phone with me,” she breathed. “I’m looking up flights now.”
I’d stayed on the phone with her, but I hadn’t said anything. I just sobbed, and she listened. She would have listened until her phone lost battery, but I had too many things to do. I could not indulge my grief. There were phone calls and arrangements to be made. A wedding to cancel, florists and photographers to call off. Only a quarter of the wedding guests were informed of the small, private memorial service that we eventually held for those closest to us. There are many who love occasions to celebrate, but few are fit for participation in grief.
The funeral had taken place ninety days ago. Our wedding would have been ten days ago. Still, I hadn’t said the words. No one had made me say them.
When I said the word, everything went black. I do not know if it was for seconds, minutes, or hours.
“Daniella?” Someone is shaking me. A man. “Daniella? Do you need me to call for medical assistance?”
“What? No.” I shake him off and turn my face away from the patch of sun streaming in through the window of what was once a prison cell. “I told you, I’m fine. Really.” To make my point, I stand up. My head throbs, and I feel like I need to sit down again, but I manage to stay up. I reach out and place my hand flat against the brick wall, letting it support me for a few seconds.
He won’t go away. “At least let me walk with you to get water. You need more water.” He pauses. “I’m sorry to hear about your husband.”
I laugh, because it is funny. He’s sorry? Sorry seems like a word you say when you accidentally break something. Sorry is something that he says to the tour guests when they cannot take a route they had planned due to unforeseen circumstances. Sorry is something that I say to people complaining about a bad day at the office. But it is not appropriate when your love was not enough to make your beloved want to stay. When he would rather be dead than be with you.
Oscar is looking at me like I have grown another head. He cannot understand why I laugh, which just makes me laugh harder. I know I am losing my mind, but I have no desire to recover it. Then I say, “Fuck you.”
I stop laughing. I have not completely lost my mind, because the look on his face brings me back to myself.
“Evidently, I said something wrong,” he says, taking a step back from me. “Well, if you’re really all right, I will leave you be.” Then he turns on his heel and begins to walk in the other direction, and I know I have hurt his feelings.
“Wait.” I push off the wall and step after him, my cry echoing off the brick. I try to ignore how desperate I sound.
He stops, but he does not turn around. I can almost hear the gears clicking in his brain as he tries to decide whether he wants to run away or risk getting hurt again. I feel like I understand Oscar. He is the calculating, attentive sort, but he is usually secretive about this. He is also deeply sensitive. He hates it when he slips and feels something, but even more, he hates it that I now understand that about him.
“There was something you said earlier. About the birds.” I feel a bit stronger now, and I walk toward him. “About how they don’t look like much, except for when they fly.”
I can see the defeat in his body language as he turns around. “You can see the markings on their feathers better when they stretch out in flight.”
“Yes. That is how my fiancé is… was. Painting was how he flew.”
I glance around us, looking up at the ceiling arch, where some of the bricks have turned black. For a prison, it is so open, with so much light coming in. But it makes sense – if a prisoner got out of his cell, he had nowhere to escape to and no fresh water to drink. With the summer sun beating down on him, he would wish to return to his cell – or death would seem like solace. The feelings that Oscar has brought out of me give me the cruel realization that perhaps I was the salt water and the relentless sun. I had failed at being an oasis. My reflection is broken by someone whooping from horseplay in the water nearby, and I realize Oscar is looking expectantly at me. He isn’t sure what to say, but he is prepared to listen.
“He would have loved this place,” I say, even though I don’t know if that’s true. He was a history teacher and was passionate about genealogy, and I am sure he would have found the fort and its link to his ancestor fascinating. But to say he would have loved it seemed too strong. To even think that he loved me seemed too strong. I realized I was trying to comfort Oscar; I was feeling sorry for him, caught in the middle of my grief and bitterness.
Oscar takes a calculated, slow step toward me. “Why did you come here alone? I understand why you still wanted to be here. But why not give your other ticket to a friend or family member and bring them along?” He paused for a while, seeming to reconsider his words. Examining them to see if they contained adequate sensitivity and tact. “I’m sorry if that question is too personal. You don’t have to answer.”
I do not tell him about my plan to camp here for the night. He is getting too personal, but I feel inclined to answer, to justify myself. “Because if I didn’t come alone, I would spend the whole time doing exactly what I am doing now. Feeling sorry. Consoling someone else in my grief. Wondering how to explain how it feels when the man you loved more than life did not consider you or your love enough to stay in the world.”
“He took his own life?”
“And left no note.”
We both pause. Then he asks, “What did your… fiancé like to paint?”
“Galaxies. Stars. Planets. He was obsessed with everything celestial in his art.” I want to sit down again but fear not being able to get up. Oscar is right; I should have brought my mother, or a friend. Someone to take care of me, to do for me what I could not do for myself. But I was hardly thinking about that when I made the plans. I had been an afterthought in my own mind ever since things had happened. “He painted me once,” I add. “My silhouette. He titled it, ‘Home.’”
“That’s very sweet.” Oscar looks around, pausing a few seconds. “If you are sure you do not want my help, I should be getting back to the other guests.”
I feel taken aback by his sudden return to business, but I know I should have been expecting it. I nod. “Thank you for… for showing concern,” I say, unsure quite how to phrase what I am thanking him for. I had not wanted to be noticed, but I feel somewhat liberated by having been able to talk about Paul and his life, even if just briefly.
A hush falls over the island when the day trippers have boarded the boat to go back to Key West, not long after the sunset. I do not see Oscar again before I am putting my tent together, with the gracious help of a family who saw me doing it alone. I am grateful that they do not ask why I am camping alone. Perhaps they take me for an adventurer. I have been camping before, but never alone, and never on a beach. The son helps me fill up sandbags to secure the tent. He has dark hair, freckles, and piercing blue eyes. I wonder if Paul and I would have had children, and what they would have looked like.
Paul had been handsome, but not in an overt sort of way. He wasn’t big or muscular, and his hairline was already receding. He had dirty blonde hair. His eyes had always struck me the most – that piercing blue, just like the little boy’s, except maybe they were a darker blue. Almost sapphire. He wasn’t the kind of guy that caught your eye when he was just walking down the street, but when he was painting or teaching, or doing things that really lit him up from the inside, that was when you noticed him. A lot of the women that taught at his school had tried to make passes at him, a subject that held humor for the two of us rather than any sort of contention or jealousy.
“Do you need any extra bottled water? We have plenty.” I look up. The mother of the boy helping me with the sandbags is smiling, holding out two bottles to me. I take them, smiling back at her.
“Thank you. I learned my lesson about dehydration a little earlier,” I admit.
“You’re welcome! I’m Kim, by the way.”
I put one water down in the sand so that I can shake her hand. “Daniella. It’s very nice to meet you. Thank you again for all your help.”
I don’t really want another pair of eyes watching out for me, but something about the conversation with Oscar earlier has softened me. I am seeing the goodness of these people, the willingness to help with no agenda. One of the things that Paul and I had connected on was the belief that the goodness of humanity was waning, that life here on Earth was inherently hopeless. I knew that was why he liked painting other star systems and planets so much. He believed in other intelligent forms of life out there, and he believed they held more potential than humanity. We always joked about how, if we ever saw a UFO, we would be shouting for them to come toward us and abduct us rather than running the opposite direction.
I look up at the stars, which are so very bright and clear here. I imagine he is out there somewhere, perhaps watching me and relenting his belief that humanity is hopeless.
Or maybe he is just as lost out there as he was here.
I look at my watch and realize the time has come to say goodbye. Kim and her family have gone back to their tent.
I reach in my bag and pull out Paul’s urn with the remainder of his ashes. His family has already scattered most of them in the yard of his childhood home. The rest are for me, for here. For us.
I dig around in the bag for my engagement ring, its diamond glinting in the light of the stars and the moon. I am not sure what to do with it, but I don’t want to lose it, so I put it on my finger.
We walk – Paul’s ashes, my ring, and I are all entities – to the moat. My heart feels frozen in place, heavy as a stone.
I do not want to say goodbye. It is unfair that I must. Paul is gone, and so is my life as I knew it and all the roles I thought I would play. Wife, mother, best friend. I know I will never be engaged to another, will never marry. Most people might see this as noble, as my being faithful to Paul, but the truth is that it is borne of a desire to avoid this agony that I am in. Paul and I were pieces of the same soul. To lose him was to lose myself. I cannot bear to have the flesh cleaved from my bone in such a way again.
The sand appears to be glowing as I reach the moat. I have learned the word for this: bioluminescence. The glowing effect is created by plankton; the light is created by a chemical reaction between oxygen and the enzymes that the creatures carry. My mother and I vacationed in Puerto Rico, where we learned about this. It was much more prevalent there than here. The water is shallow at the moat, which somehow makes me feel better. I do not want to lose Paul to anymore great depths. I know the water will carry him as it pleases, but scattering him here will give me a sense that he is not gone, that at least we can spend the night together.
I take the top off the urn, remove the twist tie on the plastic bag inside it. It is the default container that the funeral home put him in. He had not written any wishes about the container – he had only expressed in his will that he wanted to be scattered. He wanted to be free.
I take deep breaths as I say goodbye, and when I am finished, down to my last fistful of him, I am overcome by anger and hurt feelings. Why couldn’t I have been enough? Why was I not the oasis he needed? I let him fall slowly through my fingers. I take off my engagement ring, and before I can think of what I am doing, I throw it into the water after him.
It is just a thing, a piece of metal with a diamond on it. Diamonds were not truly valuable, anyway – the idea that they were was invented by British businessmen looking to fill their pockets.
An engagement ring was a material mark of a promise to marry, a promise that was now broken, which rendered it even more worthless to me.
The water is shallow, but not shallow enough for me to see where the ring landed. I go from heartbroken, to angry and hurt, to panicked. With my clothes on, I wade into the water after the ring, the symbol of broken promise. I reach down and grab fistfuls of sand and what I imagine are ash, hoping for my fingers to close around the small metal band. But they don’t. Suddenly, I am aware that I am whimpering and stop, not wishing to draw attention to myself from any campers that may still be awake. I try to relax, the warmth of the Gulf soothing me. The combination of darkness and quiet, the blackness of the water in the distance, makes me feel as though I could float off the edge of oblivion and disappear.
I hiss as I stand up in the water, recognizing the voice after a few seconds. Oscar. Why is he still here?
He perceives that I am on the defensive, alarmed by his presence. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he says softly. “I had a feeling that maybe you weren’t all right. I had to stay behind to see you were safe.”
He looks at the empty urn that is on the moat path, then extends his arm to help me out of the water. He seems to have made the connection between the urn and why I am in the water, but he is missing a piece. I hesitate to take his hand. Suddenly, I become conscious of the way my shirt must be clinging to my body, and I sink into the water until it is covering my chest. “I lost my ring in here,” I say, deciding to leave out the part where I threw it in.
“It will be easier to see when the sun is out,” he says. “I will ask Eric and the others out here to keep an eye out for it. Please, come.” He stretches out his fingers, insisting.
I wait for what feels like a very long time, considering humanity. Considering hope. Then I take his hand, and he pulls me up. I am standing on the moat beside him, water dripping off me and splattering softly on the pavement. I cross my arms over my chest, feeling naked, even though Oscar is looking away.
Perhaps he thinks I am a danger to myself, that I could be seized by the same thoughts that seized my fiancé. Perhaps he thinks I would have drowned myself. What if he thinks I was lying about the ring?
“Please have them look for it tomorrow,” I say, emotion forming a lump in my throat. “The ring.” I swallow, fighting not to burst into tears.
“I will, Daniella. Don’t worry.”
I feel comforted momentarily, and I allow him to walk with me back to my tent. We walk in silence.
A thought occurs to me, a thought that slowly turns into knowing beyond certainty that he was standing there and watching the whole time. He watched me voluntarily throw my ring into the water. Yet, his promise to have people look for it seems sincere, as does his wish to make sure I am okay. He also seems to understand that I don’t feel like making pointless conversation, that I am not capable of shallow depths at this moment in time. I stop in my tracks abruptly, and I turn to face him.
“I’m sorry,” I say. He looks confused. “I’m sorry that you understand this so well.” I gesture to myself and the urn I am carrying, even though there is no reason to carry it anymore.
He gives a tiny smile. “She is still alive,” he whispers. “Just not here. No need to be sorry.”
He knows what it is like to not be chosen. He knows what it is like to lose someone who feels like home. Judging by the absence of a band on his left ring finger, he has made a vow similar to mine.
“Do you have dry clothes to change into?” he asks me. I am not fooled by the subject change.
I nod. We continue walking, and we are at my tent. “I wish you a good night, Daniella,” he says. “I will be in the blue tent by the sandwich cabana, if you need anything.” I can tell he is reluctant to leave me, but there are several boundaries that neither of us wish to cross. I am not ready to be alone.
“What did you do?” I ask. “When your… the person you loved, didn’t want to be with you. And it’s not just a regular breakup. When you’re with her, you feel like you’re…”
He finishes my sentence. “Home? Well. I decided to throw myself into my writing, and being a tour guide.” He chuckles. “It never goes away. That feeling of missing her. That desire to go home.” He turns away from me, wandering aimlessly toward the water, but he doesn’t go far. He is looking up at the sky. “If you look at it a certain way, life is a reminder of home, of where you came from. You leave your mother’s womb and you feel separate from the one who provided warmth and nurturing. You find this feeling in other connections, but one by one, they are taken from you.”
He turns back around, facing me. I begin to shiver, a combination of effect from his last sentence and the evening breeze feeling exceptionally cool in my damp clothes.
“I can only conclude that, if you believe in some benevolent force behind the Universe, these connections are taken from us because we have to remember and find home on our own. So that no matter who comes and goes, we will always have that sense of unity and connection. Home within our own body and soul. When we forget what home feels like, another person can come along, but ultimately it is up to us, once the reminder has served its purpose.”
“But God – or whoever – did not take him away,” I say, pulling a blanket from my camp supplies and wrapping it around myself. “He went away of his own accord. We had home together, but he left it. He left me. Because I wasn’t enough.”
“What if the opposite is true?” he asks.
I am confused.
“What if you were so enough that he couldn’t handle it? Maybe he thought if he stayed, he would sabotage things.”
I am still confused. It does not make any sense to me.
“Just think about it. Change into your dry clothes, and get some rest,” he says. He turns and walks away. I do not stop him. I am floored by the fact that I have just had this conversation with a man who was a mere stranger hours ago.
In the morning, I am awakened early by the rising sun. Groggy, I sit up and down the bottle of water that I set next to my sleeping bag. Then I unzip my tent and make my way toward the cabana where I had purchased my lunch the day before, where Oscar had said he had set up camp. I look for a blue tent, but there isn’t one. Maybe he has already disassembled his camp and gotten up for the day. I look at my watch. It is not even eight o’clock yet, but I suppose it is possible.
I return to my camp and contemplate taking it down and returning the equipment, but there are no boats back to Key West until the one that leaves after sunset. I pack the empty urn in my bag and walk toward the fort in hopes of finding Oscar. I really want to thank him for the words that got me through the night. I do not see him. Frustrated, I go to the moat to check for my ring. I squint my eyes, but from the surface, I can see nothing but sand, shells, and seaweed. I have a bathing suit and can scour more deeply if I choose, but I am overcome by grief and hopelessness. I sit on the pavement and decide to “just be” with Paul in his final resting place, Oscar’s words flooding over me.
What if I was so enough, he couldn’t handle it?
What if I was the oasis, but he had only known lifetimes of mirages and false hope?
These are remnants from a conversation that, at this point, I am not even sure was real. I have a sinking feeling that Oscar was never here. And if he wasn’t here, no one will be looking for my ring today. Not unless I lie to someone else, tell them that I lost it.
Oscar’s voice is behind me. Tears of relief pour from my eyes. I close them, not wishing for him to see. But suddenly he is beside me, and he is pressing something into the palm of my hand. My ring.
I slide it onto my finger and stand to pull him into a tight embrace. “Home,” I whisper into his hair.
“Home,” he confirms, squeezing me. “You can find it anywhere. Because it is inside you.”
And since it is inside me, others who have it inside them can recognize it.
We stand back from one another, and there is a fleeting moment in which I am tempted to cross the boundary I set for myself. I can see in his eyes that he is fighting it too.
“Be well, Daniella,” he says.
Then he is gone.