Grace Notes

You can forgive only so many times before you reach the last time. My bags sit, packed and forlorn, by the door. The house is quiet, that hollow-empty quiet that makes ceilings feel too high and each over-loud tick of the clock seems drawn-out, almost reluctant. He’ll be shocked when he comes home, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

They say this happens to couples like us. We disintegrate after the tragedy, flinging blame, demanding explanations, looking to each other for the reason it happened. That’s how it is with us. I’m angry at him, very angry, yet I cannot accept the full measure of his anger at me. I cannot forgive that, much less forgive and forget, although I don’t think you ever forget something that needed forgiving.

I open his sock drawer because he keeps the summer cottage keys there. That seems fair—he gets the house and I take the cottage. We never took her to the cottage. As I feel around under the socks, my hand brushes something. I try to pry it from the back of the drawer—Is it really my business? Do I care?—when my fingernail catches an edge and cool, viscous liquid seeps out over my hand. The scent hits with a sharp slap and for one moment I fly back to a time when she was still with us. The round, innocent, sweet smell throws some sort of switch, and scenes of her bath time replay behind my eyes. A swirling tidewater of emotion rushes over me: the pleasure of holding her, the contentment of doing simple things for her, the plain joy at her very existence. These phantom feelings are quick to vanish, snowflakes on a hot stove.

I lift the bottle and read the familiar name of her bath soap. Its syrupy sweet reassurance has spread throughout the drawer, the room, my being. I remember a department store perfume demonstration, an elegant woman speaking of “notes” in the fragrance that gave it character. “Notes” seemed ill-suited to describe a scent then, but I understand now. This is beyond a simple smell. It plays in my head like a sad, slow song. I know its notes the way I know a lullaby.

In the bathroom, I run the warm water. It flows over my palms and through my fingers, and the scent softens. I can almost taste it. I try rubbing my hands together, but a gentle lather forms and the scent mingles with that of my skin, producing another wave of painful memory. I can almost feel the chubby, squirmy weight of her, soft, warm and damp, wrapped in thick terry. I rinse some more, using my nails to scrape at my skin, but even after the feel is gone, the scent lingers.

I straighten up and look in the mirror. Would she have looked like me? A blend of us, more likely. Perhaps my eyes and his nose, my hair and his walk, my bulbous toes and his dense brows. What made him keep this and not tell me? Did he think I would ridicule him? Find it too painful? Demand to share it? Did he go to the drawer when I wasn’t home and fly back to the past? Did it make him feel what I felt?

I dry my hands and collect my bags from the front hall. Back in the bedroom, I unpack and stash them away. I sit on the foot of our bed and cover my face with my hands inhaling the fragrance one more time. It tells me I’ve been wrong. Some things do not offer the simple mercy of a last time.

Grace Notes first appeared in 2005 in Flashquake, a publication that is sadly no longer with us.