Which is exactly what I do. I call her at work and leave a message; a few days later, she leaves one back. Hearing the familiar voice triggers no pain, no guilt—just an instant sense of familiarity, and of having missed her. It's only a couple of voice mails—we aren't insta-BFFs—but it is a step, and for the first time in years, that tiny photo doesn't feel like leaden baggage.
In the days that follow, object after object finds its rightful resolution. The ugly painting: to eBay, and someone who will appreciate it. The books authored by friends: side by side on their own special shelf, not as taunts but as inspiration. The Japanese postcard: properly framed, in proper tribute to a woman whose encouragement helped channel the course of my life.
But then I get to the rocks.
There are four of them: a mama rock the size of a flattened grade A jumbo egg, and triplets big enough to skip across the smooth surface of a lake. They are Italian, these rocks, dark gray with bold white stripes. They come from a secret beach in the Cinque Terre, from the last real vacation I ever took with my husband.
The beach lay at the end of a dark abandoned train tunnel. I walked that grim distance alone, out of stubbornness, because I didn't agree that ducking into the hotel to freshen up first was the best use of our time. I didn't want to waste daylight. I wanted to get where I was going. So despite a tunnel entrance marked DANGER, off I went, keeping my eyes on the distant pinpoint of light, hearing nothing but the sound of my own footfall and nervous breathing.
The beach was worth it. By the time my husband joined me, I had collected two dozen or more of those zebra rocks. I wanted them for our house, to remind me of this trip. I would not be able to take the lemon tree that stood outside our hotel room door, or the moon so full and bright on the water it woke us up at night. The rocks, though, I could tuck into my backpack and haul home on the plane.
"Peg, please," my husband said, using his nickname for me as we left the beach that day. "Lose the rocks." He saw no point in hauling home a load of stones. More urgently, we had 365 steps to climb to get back to the hilltop village where we were staying.
A third of the way up, I ditched the first few rocks. Soon I dropped a few more. By the top of the stairs I was down to four, and I have wrapped and packed them up and carried them with me ever since. In New York I kept them on the built-in bookshelf near the window overlooking a Dickensian roofscape of puffing stovepipes. In Portland they sat on my antique desk. In Boston, in this current apartment, so old and sloping I've shimmed every piece of furniture, they've lived in a carefully crafted pile on a bookshelf with Orwell and Melville and Auster.
I love the rocks because they remind me of Italy, and because they are beautiful and real, and because some force of nature made them that way. Yet every time I see them, I feel the ghost of happier times, and of my failed marriage. In fact, the marriage has haunted most of the objects weighing me down. Harry was our cat. And Carol never would have visited me in Spain had I not run away from home. And though I told myself I bought the ugly painting because I was sad about leaving New York, it's no coincidence that I bought it mere hours after seeing my ex, his new wife, and their new baby, standing on the street corner outside our formerly favorite café, in the neighborhood where they still lived in our ex-house, with our ex-furniture, and my ex-dog.
On the loneliest days I have imagined myself living there still. Us, together, a life with all its attendant rituals and comforts.
We Hear You!