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April 15, 2024

Tango 7

By Beate Sigriddaughter

Chapter 7: Kevin's Story

That Monday when Robin died, I mostly gave up on living, too. For three years afterwards I lived by default. I ate. I slept. I stumbled. Suicide didn't cross my mind. Not once. It would have been far too pro-active a thing to do with my mind, to engage it to contemplate a way out. It wasn't my style anyway. My ego was too healthy. It lured me along with promises that I still had important things to do. So instead of checking out, I simply endured.

I stayed out of people's way. People were kind to me, and I am grateful in retrospect. Of course I am grateful. But at the time I didn't even have enough energy for gratitude. They tried to pull me back into a colorful life, and I didn't want to go there. I didn't want to give up my gray. It suited me fine. Above all, I didn't want to hear about other people's gray. Support groups were out of the question for me. God forbid I should be called upon to come up with sympathy for someone else. I didn't have nearly enough for myself.

The driver of the car who had hit Robin had avoided a child running into the street after a ball. He survived. The child too. A little boy, I understand. I never met either of them. The driver at some point asked to meet me. I declined. I didn't want to deal with the reality of the fundamental innocence of what had taken place.

Robin's funeral was difficult. She'd been more popular than I had expected. Suddenly I was faced with a sea of tragic eyes that seemed to demand some sort of acknowledgment from me. I didn't want to give it. Somehow I got through it all. I didn't cry. I couldn't. For one thing, I was too ashamed to cry. I'd spent years with Robin, judging her tears with benevolent condescension. So many tears for such small things. So much feeling. I'd always recommended my own pathetic mode of being on an even keel to her. Now tears were reserved for people more deserving than myself. I was exactly the pathetic and half-dead automaton that Robin had often enough accused me of being. I was not entitled to tears. None came. What came were grief counselors, friends, colleagues, deans, human resources specialists.

After something like three years of limping along in life, suddenly vivid memories of our last week together came to me. I had never looked back at memories of that week before. I was afraid of the pain. As though one could really permanently forget or erase something like that.

I had asked Marianna, the dance teacher I had found, for an estimate of how long she thought it would take for me to learn to dance, which elicited delicious laughter on her part.

"I can't predict that," she said. "This depends on you. And on how good you will want to be."

It would take me no time at all, I decided. From the sporadic salsa lessons Robin had given me over the years, I had learned, at least theoretically, that I'd be much better off if I didn't expect her to hold my hand every second of the learning process, but instead practiced by myself to activate what she called my motor memory. Now I was determined that I was going to establish so much motor memory for tango so fast, I would amaze even myself. Robin had, after all, always maintained that it wasn't all that difficult, that anybody could dance. It was more a matter of attitude than physical ability. My new attitude was invincible. I was going to be so good so fast, it would take her breath away. People would turn their heads when we danced and ask, "Who are they?"

I was excited. I was doing this for her, and there was something incredibly sweet about finally being in love enough to be willing to do this. My heart was on fire. I knew she would love me for this. What's more, I would absolutely deserve her love this time. All would be well. I was looking forward to a new life, to dance, to Robin. I felt as though I had never loved her quite this way before.

Some of this emotional stuff carried over into our everyday world. Or maybe, with my big secret in my heart, I simply noticed our connection more. Robin and I laughed a lot. We took a walk together on Friday afternoon. After my last class, I picked her up from the library. She had resigned from being assistant professor a good while back and worked at the university library instead as a so-called library assistant. Amazingly, the pay cut from assistant professor to library assistant hadn't been as drastic as both of us had feared. She said she had the academic politicking up to here and wasn't going to spend the remainder of her life having anxiety attacks over department meetings, having to publish erudite papers, and jumping through every other hoop that was held before her. Our female department head had vetoed Robin's request to teach a course in women's literature, on the ground that we already had a man teaching a class in the history of women's literature. This probably played a huge role in Robin's decision as well, particularly as the man in question had a reputation for being something of a womanizer. Eventually Robin planned to get a master's degree in library science, which would then pad her salary upward again. Right now she was going to modestly earn just enough to cover basic needs and a few frivolities: dancing shoes, CDs, vacation money -- we were saving up to go to Hawai'i during the semester break in winter. Because she had resigned from her teaching post, I offered to support her entirely so she could take time out to devote to her poetry. We could afford it with some adjustments in our spending. But she declined.

"Maybe later, when I feel I really have something to say that must be said," she told me.

I should have pressed her, but I figured she would let me know when the time was right for her.

That Saturday we went bicycling together. On Sunday we got up early to watch sunrise together. I remember on Monday a female colleague told me how lucky I was to have someone to go with to watch sunrises together. I agreed. Later on Sunday, we went out to dinner at an Indian restaurant and saw a movie. These were all things I liked to do more than she did, and she humored me. Though the movie was fitting. We saw Billy Elliott. She loved the end scene of Billy leaping across the stage. She'd seen it before, I hadn't. I loved it, too. I thought, soon, Robin, soon. Soon I'll give you what you want instead of you always doing what I want.

On Monday the switchboard called me. I was just finishing up in my office after a late afternoon class. Our department secretary had already left. It was a third hand message and I didn't get a lot of detail, but the gist was that Robin had been in an accident and was in the emergency room. I drove over to the hospital so I'd have the car handy to pick her up. I don't remember the drive at all. Habit kicked in. I do remember thinking in a self-congratulatory way, by the time she was on her feet again, I would already know how to dance.

I got to the hospital too late to even send an "I love you" along with her, at least not one she could still consciously receive as Robin.

I was in shock and still had the adrenalin in me that had moments earlier prompted me to celebrate how we would dance once she was well again. That was the last time for a very long while when I felt anything of any urgency.

"Did she say anything?" I asked.

"No, nothing. She was unconscious right away."

I realized later they must have assumed I was hoping for some kind of "tell Kevin I love him." It wasn't that. What I was fishing for was, did she get a chance to die the way she wanted to die? She had fantasized once saying on her deathbed: "Well, this has been fun." Apparently she didn't get that chance. Maybe on some level of infinity, her mentioning this beforehand makes it count anyway.

Three years later, that small memory finally made me cry. Tears were, as everyone had predicted, a blessed thing. They washed away some of the numbness, much of the idleness, the uselessness, the worthlessness, the heavy feeling of being undeserving.

After those tears, I slowly started using my life again. I started taking tango lessons, too, never mind that they were of no great use now. It seemed the one thing I could do to honor Robin's memory was to become, even if it was now too late, the person she had wanted me to be, the person that I could be on the other side of withholding myself. It took a long time to learn to dance. She would have been so impatient with me. I wish I could dance with her just once.

I also started looking for her diaries. She had always had a notebook on hand, was constantly scribbling something. She even carried a small notebook in her purse. And index cards. I imagined she used words as a means, a hand rope of sorts, to navigate through slippery and treacherous stretches of existence where necessary. I had never looked at any of them. For that matter, I hadn't even read all of her published work, a few dozen poems and stories, things she had clearly designated for other people's eyes.

One year, after a particularly trying time in our relationship, she had excerpted sections about me from her journals as a New Year's gift. All stuff that related to me, she explained. She had printed and bound this collection of words for me in a colorful plastic ring binder, with blue, yellow, green, and white pattern in a flowery art nouveau style. She no doubt thought I would be flattered by the attention she had given me all of those waking hours and writing hours. Instead I was petrified. It had been a turbulent year. I was afraid whatever I was going to read in her observations about me would be painful. I was convinced it couldn't be anything else, considering what we had just been through together.

"You mean, I had to live through all this and experience every little bit of it, and now you don't even have the guts to read about it?" she stormed at me numerous times when I steadfastly "postponed" reading her excerpts.

She had a point. I was afraid. Maybe, too, I was plain lazy. I didn't want to be burdened with the complexities of somebody else's soul. It would take so much effort to do it justice. She eventually must have taken the binder and gotten rid of it. I couldn't find it again.

Had I only read her poems and stories, or her notebook excerpts, or danced her tango, our lives might have been different. I doubt they would have been boring, though I suspect that on some level she found our life together boring anyway. Pleasantries. Meals. Sex. Sleep. Robin going out to dance by herself. With my blessing.

So at long last I started to look for her writing.

I found a few recent journals -- I was surprised there weren't more. I hadn't disturbed anything in her room since she had last left it. I hadn't even been inside it more than a half dozen times in the previous three years. All her clothes were still there, including the ones in her laundry basket in the corner of her closet. Those I decided to toss, but the rest I finally packed up for Goodwill, all except one golden dress. She had made it herself, though she never got around to wearing it. It was exquisite. A thin layer of dust covered everything that was not in a closet or a drawer -- the black stereo, the stack of books, including four library books, presumably three years overdue now, though I imagined nobody would make a fuss if I simply returned them now.

Next to the books on the floor by her small desk lay two separate stacks of papers, each about a foot tall, the top sheets also covered with fine dust, as was the gold and black desk lamp in the shape of two dancers in front of a large milky glass moon that shielded the light bulb. The lamp brought back memories. She had found it in one of the stalls of the International Market Place in Honolulu some years back as we were strolling through colorful offerings of souvenirs and ornamental things.

"Look, dancers!" She had been so excited.

I also found a plastic box that had, according to its label, formerly contained binder clips and now was filled to the brim with fortune slips from fortune cookies from probably every Chinese meal we had ever eaten together, and it now looked like we had eaten Chinese rather a lot.

There was dust on all the exposed areas of the desk itself, even her small laptop, which, luckily, was closed. She always went for small possessions, ones she could easily cart around. We often joked that part of her was made up of gypsy or nomad blood. The only things not exactly suitable for a backpack or carry on were her books and those huge stacks of paper, though I imagine in a pinch she would have managed even those. Somewhere in a folder in my own study I had all her passwords, which she kept updated for me throughout the years. "Just in case, Kevin." To my shame I never returned the favor, though I recall she wanted me to. I shiver to remember that I was really as la-di-dah careless as she accused me.

The few journals I did find -- thirteen in all -- I found on top of her closet next to baseball caps and knitted scarves and three sets of knit gloves. I couldn't remember ever seeing her wear gloves. Two pairs were thin black wool; one was white with blue edges, a sort of gardening glove.

I ended up stacking the notebooks on my own desk. Thirteen had been her favorite number. Perhaps that's how she had worked it out -- keeping the last thirteen journals and tossing the rest. I had no idea. I found only the thirteen. At the rate I had watched her scribble morning, noon, and night, there must have been many more at some point. In fact, I remember seeing a whole line up, maybe twenty or thirty, in her closet one day when she sent me to get a jacket for her because she already had her running shoes on and didn't want to track dirt on the carpet. But in the end, there were only thirteen. At first I didn't have the nerve to look at them. Wasn't it an invasion of privacy even now?

In my imagination she laughed at me: "After I've always practically begged you to read my stuff? Hardly, my love."

While I didn't have the nerve to read them, at least not yet, I was determined to preserve them. I remember how furious she was when she first learned about Ted Hughes destroying Sylvia Plath's journal after her suicide.

"That coward. There was probably stuff about her suffering related to him in there. So the trick was: destroy the evidence of her suffering and proceed to become poet laureate, and sit around with the good old boys celebrating your own masculine no-I-didn't-do-anything-wrong importance. While the women keep committing suicide for lack of anything better to do."

Ted Hughes next wife, the one with whom he had originally betrayed Sylvia, ended up committing suicide also, as Robin did not fail to mull on. Well, Robin wasn't famous, and she didn't commit suicide over my misdeeds either, so I had somewhat less to worry about. The biggest worry I had was extremely personal and delicate: how I must have really come across to this wondrous woman who had shared my life for years, complained about me bitterly, and loved me with all her heart despite my amazing feats of carelessness and neglect.

Since Robin wasn't famous, nobody was keen to find her journals. I did try once, incidentally, to find a publisher for a collection of her short stories. Easier said than done. Maybe I should try again. Once too, after long deliberations, she self-published a novel with a print on demand publisher, or digital publisher as they called it then. She got it listed with a distributor, but nobody to my knowledge ever bought it, and last I checked, it wasn't available anywhere. I was (and still am) proud of her for going that route, for not letting others and their lack of interest discourage her from writing and publishing what she thought needed to be voiced. She created so much, and it all went more or less unnoticed. Perhaps dance is more honest in that regard. A dance does not even dream of being remembered. It happens. It unfolds like a flower. It is beautiful. Then it is gone. Making room for other dances, other things.

As to her notebooks, I finally mustered up enough courage and started with her last entry, written on the morning of the day she died. Her habit was to write a few pages each morning, speed-writing or whatever she called it. I was hoping for some kind of meaningful message of good-bye in there, some premonition maybe, or some kind of connection to keep for myself. This is what she wrote on her last morning on earth:

Article © Beate Sigriddaughter. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-09-14
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Susan Tepper
05:27:09 PM
Grief told lyrically, is still grief. I suffered reading this story which seems so real. BRAVA to the author for pulling off a male pov so powerfully tender.
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