V.A. Bettencourt

I’m jolted awake by a banging noise and a flashlight beaming into my tent.

“Hello, it’s the police, you need to come out,” an impatient voice announces.

I stumble out of the tent, heart racing, head still foggy from sleep. “What’s the matter?” I murmur.

“Are those your things over there, ma’am?” he asks, pointing to the suitcase and duffel bag next to my tent.

“Yes sir.”

“We’re responding to a nuisance complaint. I’m sorry but you can’t stay here. People don’t feel safe,” he continues, as a young woman clad in designer jeans and a tailored top walks by at a fast clip, averting her side-glance at me.

A shiver shoots through my veins. “I’ve nowhere else to go and it’s nighttime,” I plead.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” he sighs. “Look,” he says, voice softening, “you can move in the morning but you have to at least clear the junk out tonight, it can’t obstruct the sidewalk.”

“Junk?” I ask, head spinning. He points to my suitcase and duffel bag.

“It’s the best I can do for you. Just make sure you leave first thing in the morning.”

I stare at his back as he walks toward his patrol vehicle. Still in a daze, I hide my suitcase as best I can between the back of my tent and the wall, and bring the duffle bag into the tent with me. I don’t notice it’s unzipped until I hear something shatter. I grab the remains of my mirror. In the glow of street lamp light, I look at the face staring back at me: frizzed gray hair framing a frazzled face, dull eyes — refracting emptiness — ringed by deep fissures of time carved into an ancient face. She looks disgusted at the sight of me. To exorcize her apparition, I dump the shards in a garbage bag.

Fearing what other items may have fallen out, I search my duffle bag, sifting through fragments of a life I once lived. At last I find it, clutch it. If I hold it close enough, long enough, will it feel real? Was it ever? His brown eyes sparkle back at me. They were once so vivid I would get lost in them.

We lived in a house, once. For twenty three years. It had a door we painted blue, bright like the summer sky. We had a little garden out back, where we planted vegetables. Nothing much but it was ours. Or so we thought. We built a life there, once. I had just finished my masters in teaching, and he lit up the night on stages while serving tables during the day so we could make ends meet. He didn’t sleep much, back then. Always wondered if that dearth fueled the kernels of his death. But that was before all that. Back then, life made sense.

I remember when we bought this tent. It was 1999 and we got it for our honeymoon at Zion National Park. I say park but that’s like calling a saber-toothed tiger a housecat. I had never seen anything like it: jagged cliffs jutting out of the earth in a majestic display of red ochres, beiges and saffrons against an azure sky. We sauntered through canyons sculpted by streams that still ran through them, turquoise water cascading over smooth rocks. I can still feel the coolness on my feet as we waded through ravines. At night, we pitched the tent on pristine meadows and curled into each other under the milky way’s gossamer quilt.

My fingertips trace the outline of his face in the photograph. He was a good cuddler, my Jonah. No matter how long his days were, or how tired he was, he’d always wrap me in his arms when he got home, as my lips curled into a smile in the fog of sleep. It was the one constant I could count on. Until I couldn’t anymore.

I stroke the pendant dangling from my neck. It is the last valuable thing I own. The last thing I could not bear to pawn. I’ll never forget the day he gave it to me: our breakfast in the garden, the fear in his eyes when he got up to get coffee and wobbled as his vision went out. He was down on his knees when I called 911. He still had time back then. Time to learn the measure of time as it collapses into a tight band.

I don’t remember how long we were at the hospital, or how many tests they ran. All I remember was feeling as if I was free falling. “Gliosarcoma.” “Less than five years.” “Surgery and chemo could buy him time” was what we heard. I wrapped my arms around him, fingertips drained of blood, and felt his core convulse as he began to sob.

I lit the fireplace and every candle we had that night, grasping for every flicker of light I could create. “We’ll find a way,” I proclaimed, more an incantation than a conviction. “Yes,” he murmured, stroking my cheek, his eyes anchoring on that moment, the only thing we could count on. We fell asleep on the couch, forehead to forehead, hands interlaced.

The following week, we remortgaged the house we had almost paid off. All I could think of was that we needed to buy him time. And maybe a chance at life. At least for a little while.

The next thirty three months spliced into each other like slivers of a broken dream. His eyes locked with mine, misting as they wheeled him into surgery. My chest heaving as I leaned back against a frigid hospital bathroom stall. A needle puncturing his arm to infuse him with poisons that promised relief. Fifty candles on his birthday cake, a faint flicker of hope for a fifty-first. Water whirling down a porcelain bowl as I held his head as he heaved and vomited. His smile on a late summer afternoon, bathed in the slanted sienna light. His shoulders, once so broad and muscular, withering by the day. His face ashen, cheeks sunken. My stomach coiled as we waited for yet another test result. His fingers strumming his guitar, coaxing melody from measures that ended far too soon. How fragile he felt on the last night I held him in my arms.

There’s a strange incongruity in finality that displaces time. Life got out of sync, a tune whose beat splintered from melody. I remember flashes unhinged from structure. The confused look on my students’ faces as I stared out the classroom window for moments without measure. Medical bills piling into molehills on the dining room table. Having to let go of his beloved guitar, now a lifeboat to keep me afloat. Ledgers never balancing my lone paycheck against mortgages and molehills. Notices with timelines my mind couldn’t process. Sixty days to repossess. A lifetime dispossessed. Friends’ hushed whispers and heavy gazes — a tangle of pity and exasperation — at another overstayed welcome.

I curl up with his picture. Memories are funny things. They linger yet slip through your fingers until all you have left are scraps. Do my snippets amount to any less of a life than that of those who believe their lives whole? They never look at me — people with doors they think are their own. Not since I lost my blue door.

About the Author

V. A. Bettencourt writes poetry and short prose. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Magma Poetry, The American Journal of Poetry, Burningword Literary Journal and West Trestle Review, among others.