By Nancy Sharp.
He was young and French. Perhaps he didn’t understand. “I said I’m widowed,” loud enough this time to make myself perfectly clear. “Okay. So?” he asked, with a bemused smile.
“And I have three-year-old twins.”
I expected him to run. Hadn’t I frightened him away?
“What are you doing here,” he wanted to know, the crisp night air making smoke between us as he spoke. We stood under a streetlight, the din of a raucous Oktoberfest party at Zum Schneider, an indoor Bavarian biergarten in lower Manhattan, still in earshot.
It was a curious question.
I might have told him any number of things: that I was only escorting my friend Lisa that night because Lisa was missing Germany; that I didn’t even drink beer; that my command of the French language centered around ten high school phrases; and, that I was too old for him, which if he only stopped to look, he would see.
The eye sees what it wants to.
“No, really, what are you doing here?” he asked again, sweeter this time.
He seemed to be looking through me. It was piercing without being lewd.
The heat of his gaze embarrassed me and I blushed.
“How old are you?” I blurted out.
“Twenty-seven. And you?”
“How old do you think I am?”
He cocked his head to the right, reddish-brown curls sweeping his ear. He was fixing hard on my face, his hazel eyes flickering under the street lamps.
And yet, crisp jeans and glossy lipstick did nothing to mask what little identity I felt beyond widowhood, even now, nineteen months after Brett died. Had he not been so boyishly handsome, I might have been the one to walk away. Dropping the Widow-Bomb on a twenty-seven-year-old was bound to burst this flirtatious bubble so what exactly was he waiting for?
I was certain he would leave, perhaps even stagger backwards and say, “Well, nice meeting you,” heels moving quickly as he politely returned to his drunken friends. Julien foiled all my preconceived judgments. He planned a romantic first date to a downtown French bistro. He wore a fine wool sports coat and loafers; I wore a rose knit top that revealed my neckline. We talked about family for much of the evening. His mother was a painter like mine. He wanted to know about my writing life and experiences working with UNICEF, where I had met Audrey Hepburn and traveled to Sarajevo and Myanmar. He patiently explained his job as a hedge fund trader (years later I still can’t grasp it) but derivatives and arbitrage interested me far less than the buttery green of his eyes and full lips.
We fell into a quick and passionate romance. Julian was different, and not just because he was young. True, the idea that I was romantically involved with a boy-man twelve years my junior shed a mythical decade from my life. But with him I could forget all that had happened.
Brett was sick nearly seven years. While he fought to live, I fought his death. He died a hundred times in my dreams. Which meant that I planned a hundred funerals. The dreams were morbid and chaotic—like the high school acquaintance dismantling our bathroom, literally ripping the toilet from our freshly painted wall with eyes wild as a beast. Or Abraham Lincoln pushing me off a clock tower in Paris where I woke with epithets carved on my body.
I was as prepared as I could have been for Brett’s death yet it was still a shock. Maybe not at first, when family and friends camped out at our apartment, filling the empty space in our lives. But after a few months, when parents and siblings grieved privately, and all the good people retreated from their vigil, the dinners and play dates subsided, that is when I felt the irrefutable, mysterious pain of widowhood.
That is when I took to my bed, buried beneath my comforter. Everything hurt: my skull, my teeth, my calves. My brain was like a burst bag of frozen peas. The peas, which were my thoughts, scattered like loose pellets and jangled my insides like mini-glaciers. Life sucked me under the covers and for many days it was hard to see a future beyond my blue comforter.
A few times, at especially bad moments, I asked my mother to take the twins. This only intensified my helplessness and guilt because the children needed me. They needed me to dress and feed and take them to school, to play hide and seek, and chase them on the tot lot in Riverside Park. They needed for me, their mother and only parent, to absorb all the hurt and terror that they could and could not express.
I did feel and act crazy, the way the bereaved report. The smallest of things, like losing my glass of water, rattled me. I’d walk from room to room in our apartment, positive I’d left it on the windowsill, or on the bathroom sink, feeling as lost as the very glass I was searching for. I put milk in the pantry, eggs in the freezer, and nearly started a fire in the microwave. But life pressed on—small children and the responsibility of work made sure of that—so somehow, I managed to function in this altered state. I went back to work at a public relations agency where I had launched my career more than a decade earlier because we needed health insurance. In theory it made sense, but I wasn’t prepared for new demands, new responsibilities when I could barely handle existing ones. One day I sat in my boss’ office horrified that I saw two of her—two blonds heads seated on the same executive chair.
Being widowed at thirty-seven with toddler twins was the worst sort of crossroads. You are old beyond your years—overnight you become the friend with the same life experience as a grandparent—and yet you are still young enough to want a different future. More than anything you’d like to live and love again but you just don’t know where to place yourself in this new world order. Case in point: you are the youngest person by decades in your bereavement group. A ninety-seven-year-old sweetheart named Ben is the person you feel closest to in the group; he is mourning the death of his wife of sixty years. He gives you a silver chain she made. How can anyone in such company relate to potty training?
I fell hard for Julien because he dared me to dream. With him, I felt sexy and vibrant. Each morning, with my twins scampering around, I turned on my computer to find a “good morning beaute” e-mail, a new one each day. Like a poet, he wrote his desires and sometimes even rhapsodized about butterflies in purple prose that I took to heart despite its naiveté. We went for long walks through Central Park, and once to the Morgan Museum so that he could show me his favorite Titian art. With the bright colors of autumn as our backdrop, he loved to run his long fingers through my hair and whisper French in my ear, some of which I understood, most of which I didn’t, nor did I care.
A few times he came for dinner—but only after I’d shelved some of our family photographs and put the twins to bed. I remember the gentle way he crept into their room to watch them sleep, lingering there until I tugged his arm. “Cherie, they are so beautiful, just like you,” he mouthed. I led him back into the bedroom and he cupped the palm of his hand against my cheek, smiling through me, for what felt like minutes. That night he wanted to make love on the rug so that the ambient light from West 104th Street splayed across our bodies. He kissed every inch of me, naming my body parts in French. I didn’t let him stay the night, to protect both of us from the reality of my life hours later—diapering my daughter, stepping over my son’s trucks, the race to preschool. Had he asked me that night to marry him who knows what I might have said.
Whenever Julien asked, I slipped into his world, ready to escape mine. He had a roommate (a roommate!) and lived downtown. We had long talks about faith, spirituality and sex on the chair and a half in his living room. He was a brooder, dark and sensuous in temperament. He fretted about the world, about work, about his disposition. I could easily see becoming a mother figure to him, which I fought against but ultimately that was all part of the attraction. I wanted what he had to give: youth, sex, hope. He wanted what I offered: wisdom, maturity, experience.
He had no idea what a gift he gave me—to feel alive and whole again, in body and spirit. Julien, Julien I said aloud to myself like an infatuated teenager. The sound of his name rolled off my tongue as I lay in bed at night. I even let myself dream of being with him in France and of spending summers at his family’s castle.
It wouldn’t last. About a month after we started dating, my young prince lost interest. Our relationship was so fanciful that I suppose real life was bound to prevail, although he says not.
When he finally ended it one Saturday night after a distant evening together, it was as if all the grief of the past nine years collided. We both cried. He was losing, too. “So why are you doing this?” I kept asking, reality blurring as it had done so often since Brett’s death. Weeks after the break-up I had to remind myself that no, I was not right back where I was before, that even though the two losses melded together like pools of rainwater, losing Julien was not nearly the same thing as losing Brett. One loss compounded the other, one month morphed into nine years, one sweet tease rubbed out after a long death. There was no separation, no sense of person, no boundaries between the living and the dead.
This is the way of grief. It follows closely and attends.
Nancy Sharp lives in Denver and is the author of Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living.