“. . . the future remains translucent and unambiguous. . .” (Philip Schultz)

An ostentatious mirror and some dried funeral rose petals.

An ostentatious mirror and some dried funeral rose petals.

—our sober, recalcitrant houses—
are swollen with dreams that have grown opaque with age,
hoarding as they do truths
untranslatable into auspicious beliefs.

In the 48 years since I graduated from college, I have lived in 11 houses or apartments. I lived with my late ex-wife in three. That is an odd formulation—late ex-wife—perhaps as odd as our relationship sometimes feels. We were married from 1967 to 1975, and she died from the ravages of breast cancer in 2002. She had been married to a Canadian writer, divorced in about 1990. In the time since our divorce, I had had three male partners. The last of those relationships was my only healthy one. Jerry died a year after Ann died, of melanoma.

Ann and I owned a home in Upland, CA. We sold it when we moved to Iowa for my doctoral program at the University of Iowa.

In 1977 I moved to Boston without having secured a job to be with my first partner (an irrational and addictive move). Seventeen years later I moved to Dallas to be with Jerry—but a year after he moved there, that year spent reshaping my career to be a self-supporting grownup when I moved. I didn’t reshape my career for him, but figured out how to do what I had always wanted to do.

Through all of the years after we were divorced, Ann and I were in amicable contact with each other. After her second divorce (she told him he could have the bimbo and she’d have the Palm Springs condo) we rekindled the friendship we never should have interrupted by getting married.

Ann with a friend of her Canadian writer's, on a movie set in Iowa.

Ann with a friend of her Canadian writer’s, on a movie set in Iowa.

I began writing this piece about Ann on May 28, the 48th anniversary of our wedding. I don’t know the exact date in 1975 our divorce was finalized. In those days (perhaps still) Iowa had a no-fault, do-it-yourself divorce procedure that, when approved by a judge, cost us $40 for the filing fee.

How we remember certain details of our lives is a great mystery to me. I remember our wedding—the music surely. We chose the wedding party on the basis of their singing ability—we had to have a six singers for the William Walton motet “Set me as a seal upon thine heart.”

The text is from Song of Solomon 8, KJV:

Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can the floods drown it.

Fortunately four of our best friends were accomplished singers and completed the ensemble. Mine was the weakest voice in the bunch—Ann’s was the strongest. My best friend was a tenor voice major.

I have thought many times since 2002 that I had no idea what “love is strong as death” meant when I was a foolish young groom. I was with Ann in Canada two months before she died and returned for her wake. I was with Jerry when he died.

Suddenly
everything feels afterwards,
stoic and inevitable,
my eyes ringed with the grease of rumor and complicity,
my hands eager to hold any agreeable infatuation
that might otherwise slip away.

The feeling that everything is afterwards did not come upon me suddenly. It has been an awareness developing since Jerry died. Everything is afterward. I live alone in an apartment of my own choosing. The furnishings, what might pass as a décor, is stuff that I am “eager to hold [with] any agreeable infatuation.” The 1880s-vintage highboy chest of drawers Ann and I bought in about 1968. The china closet and the ostentatious Victorian mirror I inherited from Jerry. The painting of a sea storm by my uncle’s late partner (of 60 years). My mother’s ladies’ afternoon “circle” coffee cups and cookie plates. The pipe organ built by my steady friend (and Ann’s) for 50 years from college, Steuart Goodwin.

Everything IS afterwards.

Both Ann’s and my fathers were Baptist ministers. They looked forward to a kind of afterwards that I cannot fathom. I think, now and then, about the afterwards Ann and Jerry and our fathers and mothers are experiencing. I wonder. That’s all. I wonder. I’m not certain what Philip Schultz means by

The sky,
however,
appears unwelcoming,
and aloof, eager to surrender
its indifference to our suffering

but I look at the sky and think it’s unwelcoming, indifferent to my suffering.

My thinking about all of these people is heightened because I’m going through old photos and other memorabilia, so when I’m in the afterwards, my brother and sister won’t think they need to. And in the middle of this process I, as executor of her estate—some 13 years later—received notice that a house lot Ann owned atop a hill in the Ozark foothills in Oklahoma was about to be sold for the back taxes. Oops! So I pulled together the funds from her estate to pay the past-due amount.

The hill is the home of the “esoteric Christian” community Ann was part of the last few years of her life. People whose sense of “afterwards” is, as far as I can tell, that nothing is ever “afterwards.” In some form, a variety of forms, we all go on and on and on forever.

My “sober, recalcitrant [house—is] swollen with dreams that have grown opaque with age.” I refuse to commit to whether that is good or bad. The light used to penetrate my dreams. It seldom does now. My truths are “untranslatable into auspicious beliefs.”

And the future is totally “unambiguous in its desire to elude” me. Will the future be different if I get rid of Jerry’s ostentatious mirror, his picture looking down on it, or the toy xylophone my mother gave me for my fifth birthday? Or save the vase of brown rose petals from Ann’s funeral wreath?

“Afterwards,” by Philip Schultz
Suddenly
everything feels afterwards,
stoic and inevitable,
my eyes ringed with the grease of rumor and complicity,
my hands eager to hold any agreeable infatuation
that might otherwise slip away.
Suddenly
it’s evening and the lights up and
down the street appear hopeful,
even magnanimous,
swollen as they are with ancient grievances
and souring schemes. The sky,
however,
appears unwelcoming,
and aloof, eager to surrender
its indifference to our suffering.
Speaking of suffering,
the houses—our sober, recalcitrant houses—
are swollen with dreams that have grown opaque with age,
hoarding as they do truths
untranslatable into auspicious beliefs.
Meanwhile,
our loneliness,
upon which so many laws are based,
continues to consume everything.
Suddenly,
regardless of what the gods say,
the present remains uninhabitable,
the past unforgiving of the harm it’s seen,
while
the future remains translucent
and unambiguous
in its desire to elude us.

(Philip Schultz [b. 1945] is the author of The Wherewithal [W. W. Norton, 2014] and received the Pulitzer Prize for Failure [Harcourt, 2007]. He is the founder and director of The Writers Studio and lives in East Hampton, New York.)

On a trip to the Glimmerglass Opera

On a trip to the Glimmerglass Opera

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