Chess games, card games, and rented VHS tapes filled the hours, if not the void of uncertainty pervading the apartment. William procured a selection of films not widely distributed in North America, proclaiming the superior artistry of British cinema compared to its Hollywood counterpart. The movies proved more entertaining for the old man, spared as he was from the distraction of acute heartbreak. Joe spent most of the time looking in the direction of the telephone.
“What do I do if she doesn’t call?” he finally blurted during a screening of Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown.
William’s gaze peeled from the television, having been enrapt with the performance of Judi Dench. “She will. She said she would.”
“Yes but what if she doesn’t?”
“She will.” William was hunting between the chesterfield cushions for the remote.
The older man paused the video. “Joe, I know you know Claire far better than I do, but—and please forgive any unintended immodesty here—I usually get a good read on people. Came with the job—old and new, I suppose. She doesn’t strike me as the kind of person to say something like that and not follow through, no matter how strange the situation. Just keep the faith, Joseph.”
Joe buried his head in his hands. “Oh for crying out loud. What the hell would you know about it?” he muttered.
“Pardon? I didn’t quite catch that one,” William replied, ready to unpause the tape.
Joe turned to face him. “I said, ‘What the hell would you know about it?’”
“For the love of god.” Joe leaned toward the older man as though by adjusting his posture he could improve the acoustics in the living room. “I said ‘What the—”
“Oh I fully heard the words you said. What I didn’t understand, is that while I appreciate you’re struggling—”
“You’re damned right I’m struggling!” Joe stood, walked toward the window. “I don’t even know what I’m still doing here. I don’t know what the point was of me being here in the first place. And I certainly don’t know what you’re doing here.”
“You called me, Joe, if you need that reminder.”
“I did, but I called you to help, William. Not to have you come litter up my apartment with takeout boxes and blare the TV twenty-four-seven, and offer occasional pithy platitudes between bites and films.” He turned to face the older man, daggers in his eyes. “She hasn’t called, William. It’s been days. You keep saying she will, and you wrap that assurance up in increasing inanities about the beauty and complexity of relationships, but what on earth do you know about it, really?”
Joe turned back to the window. “By your own admission, you lost the only love you’ve apparently had, so what would you know about it, anyway? How do I know that all the ‘advice’ you’re giving isn’t doomed to make things worse?”
“Hey. Asshole.” The sound of the weathered voice prompted a start from Joe. William had risen from the couch and was standing directly behind him.
“Once again, I know you’re struggling,” William said, his tone stern, yet gentle. “I know, because in this one respect at least, I’ve been where you are now—wondering how things went wrong, and if it’s too late to fix it. In my case, it certainly was.
“But regardless of how you’re feeling, you’re going to take a seat instead of taking it out on me.” The mirth returned to William’s eyes. “And by the smell of it, you’re going to take a shower when this conversation is done.”
Joe sat back down, propping his forehead on hands that splayed through disheveled hair.
“Do you know who the ‘Kemp’ was, in ‘Kemp’s Books & Wares?’” William asked.
“You said it was an ‘old friend’ or something like that, who got sick. You were the executor,” Joe muttered.
“All true, though ‘friend’ might be both an understated and generous term. Ellie Kemp was my wife.”
Joe lifted his head, his eyes regarding the old man through spread fingers. “Why did you tell me she was just a friend?”
“Well, because by the end, that’s all I could claim—and even then, maybe from her perspective that term was a bit of a stretch.” William feigned a smile, shifting on the sofa that seemed to engulf his slumped shoulders. “And besides, it’s generally not first-conversation appropriate when someone wanders into the store.”
“First-conversation appropriate? I had just told you I was dreaming through the eyes of a woman I’d never met,” Joe said with a sardonic laugh.
“Perhaps, but what was I supposed to say? ‘Don’t be shy about your dreams, son, and about what you feel in your heart. The old man you see before you used to be a young man who traded his heart for ambition, and in the end went from medicine to the mystical in what’s probably been some misguided attempt to keep that love alive. To assuage the guilt at breaking both our hearts by choosing career over her.’” He forced another smile. “What does that make me? Probably a cliché, at best.”
Joe adjusted his tone. “I don’t know about that, William. I haven’t met too many people who gave up their life’s work for love, even if it was lost love.”
The old man chuckled. “Before all this, I don’t get the impression you met many people who were much more to you than the Gross Income line on their tax return.” He raised his hands in defense. “I don’t mean to trade insults with you, Joe.”
“It’s okay. You’re probably right. And I apologize, for before. I am truly grateful that you’re here.”
The doc cleared his throat. “I know the last thing you probably need or want right now is a sad-sack tale of regret from an old man, so I’ll spare you the gorier details that have probably been universal to tales of lost love since humans first waded out of the oceans. Ellie asked me to choose her. Not choose her instead of medicine, but to be certain that my career was a means to an end—that end being us, and all that an ‘us’ entails.” His eyes had begun to glass over, and William turned his gaze to the world outside.
“She wasn’t asking for much—and it certainly wasn’t an ultimatum—but she just wanted something. Something that might let her know she was chosen, she was worthy, she was everything I hoped to find in another human being. She asked me to choose her, Joe, and I didn’t. I said—if not in so many words—that she could wait. We could wait. I argued that I just needed to get things off the ground, and there would be time for us later.
“She told me that later is never guaranteed, there is only now, and if I couldn’t bring some level of dedication to us in the way I brought it to external pursuits, then what was the ‘later’ I was expecting to come home to? One where she’d still be sitting around? A life unlived? Waiting for a day when the door would open and I’d walk through and say, ‘Okay, I took care of everything else first, and now I finally have time for you?’ I didn’t realize that if I had taken care of us first, the rest would have taken care of itself.
“I did open the door one day—far too late as always—and she was gone. She left a note saying she missed her lover and best friend, but she missed herself just as much while putting her life on hold waiting for a sign. Any sign that might suggest my favourite part of the day wasn’t when I left in the morning, but when I got to come back home to her. She said she felt deeply that there had to be more than this—pursuit in the name of prestige, and a house full of things but empty of a soul—and so she was heading out into the world to reclaim hers. She said she hoped one day I would join her there.
“But I never did. Pride got in my way far too severely for far too long. I made our divorce difficult. I derided her attempts to ‘find herself’ and open the store. I hoped for its failure; that one day I’d come home and she would be back, having found only an avalanche of unpaid bills. I wanted her to be wrong. I wanted her to pay for abandoning us. I couldn’t get over the idea that she could have gotten over me.
“I paid in full for that way of thinking, Joseph. I’m still paying for it.” As William returned his eyes to Joe’s, the younger man saw the cobalt blue irises buoyed upon a wave of emotion that the older man fought to restrain.
“You asked ‘what the hell I knew about it,’” William continued, “and maybe you’re right, I don’t know much about what makes love work. Turns out what I know about practicing love is commensurate to what I know about the practice of science: figuring out what doesn’t work. What isn’t true.
“Ellie was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, Joe, in any possible way that description fits. And she was too good, Joe, she wouldn’t give in to the resentment or pettiness or games. She was true to her word that she would find something more and would wait for me there—while not waiting around—but I never showed. Oh, I turned up physically, at times, arriving at her little store to park my Porsche out in front and flash my matching cufflinks and offer unsolicited updates about how I had accepted this board appointment or been published in that journal. She only ever smiled.” William attempted his own smile at this, the rise of his cheek pushing a drop from his eye.
“I guess I thought that if I showed up at her door enough times, and paraded all that she was missing out on, she’d find her way back to my door. She just smiled, Joe. And one day, too many years later, she did walk through the clinic door. And though the smile was still there, I knew in a heartbeat that something was wrong. She certainly wasn’t there to capitulate to what I thought I wanted. It was almost as though she was saying—although I know this would never have been her heart—‘Okay show me. Prove that the life you traded me for is powerful enough to fix this.’”
William spoke barely above a whisper now. “And I couldn’t, Joe. I threw everything I had into saving her—every therapy, every specialist, every waking hour I could find to the study of oncology—and still I couldn’t. She still went, and I’m scared she left without knowing how much I loved her, or how much I missed her, or how I spent every night even before she got sick coming home from work knowing that no matter how many people I healed it wouldn’t matter, because I had hurt her heart.”
The tears fell freely now. “And you’re not supposed to break the heart of the one who helped you find your own.”
A silence engulfed the room. William eventually broke the quiet with a clear of his throat. “Anyway. I’m sure it’s entirely cliché for me to say to you that I don’t want you to make the same mistakes. Do I have selfish intent for being here? Maybe. Is it to fill your fridge with takeaway boxes and rack up late charges on videos from the newsstand? No. Is it because I see in you a man I used to be, and the chance for you not to turn into the man I am now? Probably. And perhaps that’s entirely wrong, Joseph. Perhaps I have no right to be here, even if you asked. I know that you mending things with Claire won’t bring Ellie back to me, or atone for my mistakes. I know it’s unfair to hope that a piece of my heart will heal if the two of you heal yours.
“I know I ought not tell you that when I lay my head down at night, though I don’t dream through Ellie’s eyes—wherever she is—I do hope she can see through mine, and sees what’s happening here. And I probably shouldn’t say this either, Joe, but I know she does. I don’t ‘know’ it in the way I know certain physics equations or prescription contraindications. But something tells me that she sees me. She sees my heart now. She sees you, and Claire, and this situation. And the same thing that tells me that, tells me that Claire will call.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish