The Viewing

My car speeds north along the nearly deserted two-lane stretch of Highway 101 towards Waldport. My muscles are stiff from my hike up Cape Perpetua, and I’m anxious to get back to the house where I am staying for a hot shower. The sky is grey with pending rain and the ocean crashes against the rocks, occasionally spraying the road.

As I round a curve, a flower cart is suddenly flung high into the air only two hundred yards or so before me, spilling flowers onto the road. How bizarre, I think, there’s nothing like flower carts around here. This small Oregon town caters more to loggers than to tourists. Then I see a white car sideways across my lane. A motorcycle splayed on its side. That was no flower cart in the air at all; it was the motorcycle.

I slam on my brakes and swerve to the side of the road up against the cliff. I grab my raincoat and run to the accident, my open car door ding-ding-dinging behind me.

The motorcycle is green. A sidecar is attached. A man in black leather is sprawled out in front of the white Ford. All this I see in a blur as I race to the middle of the deserted highway. I shove my arms into my raincoat as I search up and down the road for an approaching vehicle. For the first time in my life I wish I had a cellphone. The ocean sprays high across the road; the rain mists my face. I hop from one foot to the other, turning my head to the north, the south.

It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Finally, a pickup lumbers into view from around the curve. I stand smack in the middle of the lane and wave my arms, my raincoat flapping crazily. The pickup screeches to a halt just a few feet from me.

Do you have a cellphone? I shout at the driver, a big man, a logger maybe. I run to his window.

He nods quickly.

Call 911! I yell, pointing my finger at him.  It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Call 911! I yell. I’m up on the truck’s step, gripping his car door, just inches from his face.

He looks like he’s afraid of me. But I see his cellphone in his big hand. His grimy fingers press the buttons.

* * *

Usually when I head over to the coast for my annual personal retreat in Waldport, I leave at first light the Sunday morning at the start of my stay. That way I can get a beach walk in before 11, when my week officially begins. I’d been coming here for years: spending a week in late October by myself in a small blue house right on the ocean.

This time though, I went to Abe’s viewing first.

I would have read of his death in the newspaper along with everyone else, had the wife of one of his friends not called me at work.

“Abe died last night,” she had said. “I told Hank that no one would think to call you, and I didn’t want you to see it in the paper before you knew.”

I thanked her kindly; I knew it had taken a lot for her to call. Most of the wives had been wary of me, as though my love for Abe were somehow a threat to their own marriages. Rumors that we were having an affair had circulated for the ten years we had been together. Now, fifteen years after Abe and I had finally given up on it, apparently people still wondered about us.

His wife, Ellie, never uttered a single hint to either him or me that she knew. Maybe she was grateful for our discretion and thought if she didn’t acknowledge our relationship, she wouldn’t have to do anything about it. She was distant towards me, but never unkind.

Abe was not the sort to have an affair. Neither was I. We met not long after I left my violent husband in Colorado and moved to Oregon. I had no trust left for men. Abe was safe, easy to talk to. When I saw him with his wife, they were obviously happy; they had that laid-back, teasing way of being together. He was the kind of dad who worried over his daughter’s middle-school problems.

Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior.

Yet we let our friendship cross the line and then did nothing to try and bring it back to the right side again. Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior. I’ll not give myself that.

I’m not proud that we had an affair.  And I would never again do that to another woman. Or to myself. Because you never come first when you’re in a relationship with a married man. Face it, a daughter’s volleyball game will always trump your birthday.

In fact, I guess you could say the years Abe and I were together were really nothing more than ten years’ worth of one-night stands. Because if one of you can’t commit, it comes down to the same thing. When I said that to Abe during an argument once, he cried.  I never said it again.

*     *     *

I run back to the man splayed on the asphalt. The man and the woman from the white Ford stand next to the car. The woman is crying, the man has his arms around her. The ding-ding-dinging from my car door pierces the pounding of the ocean.

I drop to my knees. The man’s body is encased in black leather as though the skin of a dead animal could have protected him from a white Ford. His head is not even two feet from the car’s left front tire.

I unfasten his helmet and then remember that I’m probably not supposed to move his neck, so I don’t take it off. Instead, I lift his goggles to his helmet. His eyes are almond shaped. Ice blue.

I try to remember how far we are from a hospital. Newport is at least twenty minutes away, even at ambulance speed. I can’t remember if Newport has a hospital or not.

The woman’s crying sounds far off even though she is standing right there. The asphalt digs into my knees. I take off the man’s gloves. Rough, square hands with wide short fingers. Broken blunt nails. I rub his hands. Once, when I was a child growing up in Miami, my mother took us to the Sea Aquarium. There was a manatee in a pool and I got to pet it. I think of that leathery crackled skin now as I rub the man’s hands. My car ding-ding-dings.

The man makes a moaning sound.

Shhh, you’re going to be fine, I tell him. His eyes are ice blue. Shhh, everything’s going to be just fine.

The ocean pounds against the rocks, spraying the road. The rain mists all around us.

The man moves his head. I can tell he wants his helmet off. I shake my head no, and knead his manatee-skin hands. It’s going to be okay, I say. You’re going to be okay.

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

He squints his ice blue eyes at me as though he is trying to remember where he knows me from.

I hear other cars stopping. A man, maybe even the man who called 911, yells. Help me with the bike! The fuel is running all over the place!

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

I rub the man’s square manatee-skin hands and stare into his ice blue eyes. He wants his helmet off. Shhh, I say, shhh. Everything’s going to be all right. The man’s face is damp with ocean spray and rain mist.

From far away I can hear the ambulance screaming. The man darts his ice blue eyes back and forth, back and forth. Shhhh, I say, shhhh. I rub his hands.

*     *     *

I used to wonder if I would love Abe as much if he were available. Back then I was still afraid I would turn back into my old self if a man tried to manage my life. I didn’t trust that my new confidence would stick. That if I got battered again I wouldn’t be too scared to leave and start my life all over.

Abe didn’t know about the violence, though he could have guessed. One night early on in our relationship, when we were playfully wrestling with our lovemaking, he held me down by my wrists. He weighed over a hundred pounds more than me, and I squirmed, trying to get out from beneath him. We had been laughing, but I became afraid. A dark voice from somewhere deep inside me growled, “Get. Off.” In my sudden fury, I could have sunk my teeth into his cheek and ripped his face off.

Abe rolled off immediately. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” I should have told him then, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to put my past life behind me, pretend it hadn’t happened. He never brought it up, not even after I started working at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence.

We stopped seeing each other so many times I lost count. When it was Abe who ended it, it was because of a poem he had read about a man and a woman who had an affair. When he died, she could only watch the funeral from behind a tree, while his wife received all of the town’s sympathy. He didn’t want me to be that woman. When I was the one who broke up with Abe, it was because it was too late. I already was that woman.

It was me who finally ended our affair for good. I couldn’t sneak around anymore; I no longer cared whether anyone knew or not. Even then, I didn’t expect him to leave Ellie; I would have lost respect for him if he had. But I wanted to be the woman who came first. I wanted to be the woman he planned on sailing around the world with after his retirement.

 *     *     *

A woman kneels next to me. She leans into me. Our shoulders touch. I can tell she’s a strong woman, capable.

Her voice is husky. I’m a registered nurse, she says quietly at my ear. I almost don’t hear her over the crashing of the ocean.

I’m not, I tell her, not taking my eyes away from the man’s.

She removes the man’s helmet. Ah, I think, so I could have taken it off after all. The man’s hair is grey and matted.

I can take over now, she says. She takes the man’s rough manatee-skin hands from me.

I knee myself out of her way, still looking in the man’s ice blue eyes. It’s going to be all right, I tell him. Everything is going to be okay.

My legs tremble as I stand. My car has stopped ding-ding-dinging; it must have finally run down, like an alarm clock. Or killed the battery. I wobble past the man with the ice blue eyes, to the other side of the white Ford.

Then I see her. Laying face down, arms and legs bent in impossible angles, face into the asphalt. As though some pissed-off god had snatched her out of that sidecar and slammed her down on the asphalt in a fury.

Even I can see she is dead.

 *     *     *

I ran into Ellie at the grocery store a month or two before Abe died. I hadn’t seen her for years. She looked so happy to see me and I was surprised that I was glad to see her too. We chatted in the produce aisle, occasionally stepping aside while an irritated shopper reached around us for an onion. As she told me about the grandkids and what Abe was up to, I realized that there was a real affection between us. Maybe, because we had loved and been loved by the same man, in some curious way we were bonded. Abe had loved us differently, neither of us ever a real threat to the other. Or maybe it was simply a matter of enough time having gone by that we could appreciate each other as individuals rather than as extensions of Abe.

During the fifteen years we were no longer having an affair, Abe and I talked often on the phone. Sometimes in the middle of the day, he’d call me at work. “Do you remember the time …” he’d start to say and I’d finish his sentence and we’d both start laughing. We’d always seemed to know what the other was thinking.

Occasionally he’d drive over to the town where I worked and take me out to a nice place for lunch. We’d talk about our days with the easiness of two people who had known each other at both their worst and their best, or lapse into comforting silences. On the way back from the restaurant, Abe would drop his hand, as big as a baseball mitt, palm open, onto the console between us. I’d place my hand in the middle and he’d fold his fingers around mine. We’d drive back to my work like that, my hand in his.

At Abe’s viewing, I waited in the lobby as the man in a black suit instructed me to do. The family was still with Abe; momentarily they would be leaving and then other mourners could go in. But Abe’s daughter saw me through the glass door and waved. She turned to her mother and Ellie came out to embrace me.  She cried and we rocked each other back and forth.

 *     *     *

Two paramedics leap out of the ambulance as it coasts to a stop. One turns the woman lying face down on the asphalt over and takes off her helmet. Her grey hair spills over the wet black asphalt. The other paramedic slits her black leather casing open, exposing her plump white middle-aged chest and belly. He snips her brassiere at the center and her breasts, large and round, spring free.

The woman’s nipples stand hard and erect.

The paramedics attach the pads for a defibrillator and shout things like Clear! at each other. But I know she’s dead. Even the registered nurse had walked right past her, instead coming to the man with the ice blue eyes.

My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The woman’s body jerks with each shock. I think of the frog I dissected all those years ago in high school. If you poked your scalpel in just the right place on the frog’s spine, you could make the legs move.

The woman’s skin is white against the black leather flayed open at her sides, the wet black asphalt. Her body looks like it has been carved in marble. Only her nipples strain for life.

The sheriff’s deputy is here now, scribbling in his notebook. He asks for my name and address. My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The nurse is kneeling by the man with the ice blue eyes. The driver of the white Ford and the woman who is crying talk to the deputy. A group of men stand around the motorcycle doing whatever it is that men do to motorcycles.

The motorcycle looks like a bike you would expect to see in a movie about World War II. A Russian-made bike I hear one of the men say. It has Arizona license plates and is covered with little travel stickers: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Rushmore, Oregon Sea Lion Caves.

Someone has made a pile of the belongings of the man with the ice blue eyes and the woman. Things that I mistook for flowers when I first saw the white Ford flip the motorcycle into the air: a little notebook with a rubber band around it, maps, several small canvas bags.

I bet it was the woman who packed everything in those little bags, I think, as I walk towards my car. I do the same thing when I travel; everything has its own canvas bag: my hiking clothes, my books, my art supplies. They had probably planned this trip around the country in their green Russian-made motorcycle for years. I imagine him smiling down at her cocooned in the sidecar with all her canvas bags, his ice blue eyes crinkling at the corners behind his goggles.

Someone has closed my car door. That’s why the ding-ding-dinging stopped. The inside of the door and driver’s seat are wet from where the rain misted in. I take my raincoat off and reach in to drape it over the passenger seat. Then I get inside and shut the door. I sit in the sudden silence a minute with my eyes closed.  Then I slip back onto Highway 101.

 *     *     *

The viewing room was empty when I entered. Lights dimmed, soft non-committal elevator music playing. Abe would have much preferred strings of sparkly blinking lights, and some jazzy piano music, Scott Joplin maybe. I peered into his coffin. He wore the same little boy smile he always got when he saw a puppy. I placed my palm on top of his folded hands. Other than the cold hardness, they felt the same. Coarse and kind. “Peasant hands,” he called them. “Artist hands,” I’d always reply.

My chest tightened and my throat went hot. I had been so relieved when our breakup dance was finally over that I never once thought about how much I missed him.

*     *     *

It’s raining for real now, not just misting, as I back into the driveway of my little rented house. I sit there watching the greyness of it. Then I bend down and wriggle my jean leg up over my right knee. Little bloody pits from kneeling on the asphalt dot my leg. I push my jean leg back down and press my head into the steering wheel. I think of the hot shower I had been looking forward to after my hike. But I’d have to walk up the steps, unlock the door, take off my boots, get undressed, step into the shower.

After a minute, I get out of the car and walk towards the roar of the ocean. I have forgotten to put my raincoat back on and the rain soaks through my turtleneck, my jeans. My skin shivers alive with it. I stand as close to the edge of the ocean as I can, the waves shlushing just short of my feet.

You can barely see where the horizon lies—the ocean and the sky are so nearly the same shade of grey.  After a while I can’t tell if I am wet from rain, ocean spray, or tears.

Mary ZelinkaMary Zelinka lives in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over 22 years. Her work has previously appeared in Pilgrimage, The Sun, Open Spaces, and CALYX, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.