No One Knows What

Catherine Lacey

Some years later she met a man who had spent his whole life being kinder than he needed to be, a man whose eyes moved softly across crowds and faces. He wore his warmth like skin—it was unmissable—and how strange it was for her to consider how easily she could have never met him, that in the moment just before they met she was only a stranger standing next to him on a bus, not speaking, not even looking at each other until the M14 drifted on some black ice and skidded into another bus, whiplashing her face into
a pole, bringing a drizzle of blood from her nose and onto his white shirt sleeve. 

He always carried napkins saved from delis because he was a father, divorced, of two boys, ten and twelve, and if there’s anything you learn after a few years of children it’s how much there is in the world to absorb. He said this to her— You never know when there will be something to absorb—and she laughed even though it wasn’t funny, not even odd, maybe just true.

They soon loved each other in the unguarded way that often comes more easily in middle age, after other loves have failed and what you need is less a mystery and more a matter of luck and waiting. They moved to Florida to be close to his nearly dead parents and they had a son and they lived in a house that was spongy with leaks and humidity and she worked as a secretary for a high school and he made low-budget commercials for local businesses and they still made each other laugh without trying too hard and he resented things about her and she resented things about him but they still held each other in bed and though their bodies changed their bodies always felt the same with each other, and while holding and being held they felt younger and older at the same time. On vacations they read their favorite pages of novels aloud to each other, but they never really resolved certain arguments—whether she sometimes chose to be in her doomed and dark moods or whether he felt his feelings as deeply as he could—though they still ordered tiramisu every anniversary to honor that first date, at that mediocre Italian place in the Village where the waiter accidentally dropped their dessert on the floor—twice!—before successfully delivering the third order to their table.

In Florida their quiet son grew up longing for mountains, went to college in Utah and stayed in Utah for longer than they’d ever expected and one morning she woke up beside her husband to discover he had died without saying goodbye, so she was alone again, not yet old but no longer young, and some years passed, dissolved into morning radio programs and book clubs with other widows and trips to the grocery store until she discovered that she had become very old, then older still and there was an afternoon in particular when her son, so handsome now, came to visit her and she realized she had reached the part of her life where she had lost more than she had left to gain, and she knew she would lose everything she ever gained and she realized her son would lose her and she could see that now, his hand on her hand, the easy, kind eyes of her late husband still looking after her through the head of her son, and the earth grew older and shuddered and the tree frogs outside her window screamed to each other about no one knows what. 

But she also knew that the world and all its mysterious life was going to keep going without her, and she finally just believed in it, believed in the world without a god or a reason. Everything she had ever done right or wrong in being a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, once a lover, now a widow—every choice she’d made, everything she’d ever said or done receded for a moment and she knew—this is how it feels.