A painting I did the first year Bill and I were together shows a field of green. In the center there's a floating bed, and in the middle of the bed two people, face to face, stare into each others' eyes and hold each other. That was what we were like those first years. We held each other and saved each other and were each other's everything.
Time passed, and of course we changed; we had to, and it was appropriate that we did. We moved out into our own worlds, but we kept that connection. Night after night Bill slept next to me, his warmth just inches away.
He's on the other side of the world now. This isn't the first time one of us has been gone for months, but it's the first time it's for this many. Our house shows it.
The house without Bill has a lot more visible stuff. Bill has a "seed theory": if you put an item on a clean, cleared surface, that surface is "seeded" and everybody feels free to dump things there. With him not around to clear the seeds, they sprout to twisting, tangling vines.
On every surface rests papers, clothing, and shoes rescued from our dog Lola. She loves to carry a shoe in her mouth. "Lola! Drop it!" we say, and she wags her tail wildly and dances in a game of keep-away. "Give," we say, prying the shoe from her mouth and setting it on the nearest piece of furniture. When Bill's home, it's just shoes, but now the shoes are joined by tights, T-shirts, and jackets. I tend to shed when I get home from a long day.
The kitchen without Bill in it would drive him crazy. Two days' worth of dishes pile in the sink. Last week I forgot (again) to set out the garbage cans -- a task which includes emptying all the pails in the house -- so the recycling bag is filled to the top with empty dog food cans and cardboard innards of paper towel rolls.
In the bathroom, my nightly water glasses accumulate for four-five-six days before I carry them upstairs to the dishwasher. The sink is scattered with contact lens solution, face creams, a razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a once-used washcloth.
And in the bedroom, I've festooned the bottom of our sleigh bed with jeans and towels, hiking clothes, and my red terry robe. The bed is rumpled. My side nestles New Yorkers and books and Kleenex. With Bill gone for months, I sleep on his side of the bed so his side isn't empty. It's less lonely that way.
Once a week I put away the clutter. I like things clean and serene too, but I feel cuddled having my stuff out where I can see it.
I'm not living alone, I'm living with Annie, and I'm not single, this is a situational separation. But I'm more alone, more without a partner, than I've been in twenty-odd years.
When I was 23 I lived alone briefly, between roommate situations. I had a small studio apartment on Mission Street in San Francisco. My second-floor apartment looked out onto the street, and onto the alley alongside the building. It was scary out there. I lay on my futon alone at night and listened to the prostitutes servicing their clients in the alley below.
My first night there, living alone for the first time, I cooked myself a beautiful trout dinner in the closet-sized kitchen. Trout, baked potato, steamed broccoli -- it smelled incredible. I sat at the tiny fold-out table, my hip almost brushing the oven door, and took my first bite. As I swallowed the forkful of trout, a sharp fishbone lodged itself deep into my throat, spanning the channel. My throat spasmed, and every spasm drove the ends of the bone deeper. It hurt terribly. I could speak, I could breathe, I could cry, but the fishbone wasn't going anywhere.
I tried calling my dad. I tried calling my boyfriend. Then I bolted down the stairs to Mission Street. As I crossed the street, a bus came so I got on it, my throat still spasming, the pain intense. With each passing block I tried to figure out where the hospital was and if the bus would get me there -- Convulse! Stab! -- then, after a few blocks, my throat gave a giant lurch, and the bone went down.
I got off at the next stop, crossed the street, hopped another bus home, unlocked the gate, climbed the stairs, opened the door, shut it behind me, threw my purse on the bed, and sat back down at the kitchen table. The trout was still warm. I ate it weeping, tearing it apart with my hands to make sure I'd gotten out all the bones.
I met Bill two years and many apartments later. He grounded me at a time when I was unmoored, barely able to stir-fry a meal, barely able to hold a job. Newly ungrounded himself, he was divorcing after a long marriage with two kids. We held each other tight.
We're all learning to take care of ourselves now. Bill rents a house in Madagascar. Annie and I are learning to be more roommate-like. She does her own laundry and helps in the kitchen. She's learning to take buses through city streets. Annie is sixteen, and in some ways this is a trial run for the inevitable diminishing of our tight family structure, though we all expected Annie to leave first.
Yet Bill hasn't really left. Our love is strong, our commitment unbroken. We talk on Skype almost every day, and in between, we email and Twitter. We're still together, we love each other, and this is temporary. He hasn't really left, he's just not here right now.
I'm alone in the bed. If Bill were here, I'd reach for him, and we'd hold each other face to face the way we did that first year.
I wake in the middle of the night to make sure that the dogs are okay, that Annie is safe. Then I lie back in our bed, on Bill's side, missing his leg over my legs. I pile his pillows on top of me for comfort.