This is about the time my wife, Marie, went blind, but it’s also about me and my friend, Keefe, and the novels we wrote. I wrote a novel about a woman who loves a man even though everyone knows she’s too good for him, and Keefe wrote a novel about a guy who goes blind. The night before she went blind, Marie was in bed, reading Keefe’s novel. I mean, she was really reading it — sighing meaningfully, laughing at the funny parts, even crying a little bit, even crying a lot – and when she put the novel down for the night and I saw that the bookmark was stuck somewhere toward the beginning, I asked Marie what she thought of the book so far.
“Oh, I’ve already read it.”
“I’ve already read it,” Marie said. “Four or five times, at least.”
“What?” I said. “Why?”
“It’s good,” Marie said, wiping away a last happy tear. There is nothing a writer hates more than seeing someone cry over another writer’s book, unless it’s a writer seeing his wife crying over another writer’s book. “I love it. It’s really, really good.”
I’d read it, too, and I knew that she was right, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I said, “Does it you make you feel what it’s like to be blind?” Because that’s what the book’s jacket promised: that Keefe’s novel would make you feel what it’s like to be blind. My book’s jacket promised that it would forever change the way you thought about love, but as far as I knew it hadn’t done that yet, for anyone, not even for the person who’d written the book jacket. And certainly not for Marie, who read the book when it came out, a year or so before she went blind. I knew she’d finished it, because I saw that it had made the return trip from nightstand to bookshelf. After a week of her not saying a word about the book, I confronted her about it. “You didn’t like it, did you?”
“It’s not that I didn’t like it,” Marie said, not looking at me, concentrating on the grapefruit she was carving and digging it up with one of those special jagged grapefruit spoons. She’s been eating those things for years, plus she had the special spoon, and so I knew she didn’t need to concentrate so hard to do the eating.
“Well, what is it, then?” I asked.
“I’m kind of in there,” she said, then thought for a second, and added, “more than just kind of.” I could tell, by the way she said it, and by the way she was hacking at her poor grapefruit, that she wished she weren’t.
“No, you aren’t,” I said. “Why would you say that?”
“The wife in the book,” she said, looking up at me now, jabbing her spoon in my direction. “Her name is Marnie.”
“So?” I said. “It’s a totally different name.”
“It’s different by one letter,” she said, and then, before I could argue that yes, but it was an important letter, she said, “And you also wrote about us.”
“About us?” I said.
“About things that happened to us,” she said.
“Are you talking about the fundraising dinner?” I asked. Because in the book, the narrator (his name is Brett) and his wife, Marnie, were at a fundraising dinner at the museum where Marnie worked as a curator, a fundraising dinner intended to raise enough money for the museum to afford more and better art for her to curate, a fundraising dinner at which Marnie and Brett were sitting next to a couple, a rich couple who had paid their five hundred dollars apiece for their plates of salmon and asparagus and who Marnie and everyone else at the museum hoped would eventually give the museum much more money on top of that. Things were going well enough until the conversation turned to death. What would you do, the couple asked, if your wife or husband, the love of your life, died? What would you do then? The woman said she would go live in a yurt somewhere in the wild and learn the names of the plants and trees and bushes and all the other natural things whose names she’d never bothered to learn. The man said he’d retire from Western Life and Casualty (he was in the insurance business) and go into training to become a priest, or maybe a deacon, or maybe the guy who walks the aisle with his basket collecting money during mass, but in any case someone who had a more personal relationship with God. Marnie said she’d like to go on an archeological dig, not in Greece or Egypt where they’d been digging for centuries and pretty much dug everything there was to dig, but somewhere undisturbed, archeologically speaking. Albania, maybe. When it came to Brett’s turn, he said that he wouldn’t want to go on living without Marnie, and if she died he would take pills, or buy a really sharp razor or a gun and kill himself right away so that he could join Marnie wherever she was and be with her forever. There was a silence at the table, until Marnie said, “But you don’t believe in God, or heaven,” and Brett said, “I know,” and started weeping, weeping right onto his asparagus and salmon, weeping and weeping so loudly and for so long that everyone at the adjacent tables, and the tables adjacent to those tables, and the museum director on stage with her microphone trying to make a speech, heard him and stopped what they were doing to stare. Everyone had appalled looks on their faces; everyone, that is, except for Marnie, the woman who loved him, who held him and said it was OK. She wasn’t going anywhere, she promised, and that he could cry all he wanted for as long as he wanted, she was there for him and she would hold him until he felt better and she didn’t care who saw her do it, and she loved him, she loved him, she always would, no matter what other people might say or think.
The only difference between the novel and real life is that Marie, instead of holding me during the fundraising dinner and saying all, or any, of those reassuring things to me, excused herself to go the bathroom after about two minutes of my weeping, and I found her three hours later, drinking whiskey sours over by an installation piece that was basically just an old rotary telephone that wouldn’t stop ringing. “Is that what’s bothering you,” I said, “the scene about the fundraising dinner?”
“That’s one thing, ” Marie said. But before I could go through the other occasions when Brett (and Brent–my name is Brent) gave Marnie (and Marie) reasons not to love him (me), although she did anyway, she said, “If you love me you won’t make me talk about it any more.”
I couldn’t exactly argue with this, because the novel was entitled “This is a Story About How Much I Love You,” and I’d dedicated it to her, “Marie, the woman I love and for whom I’d do anything.” Because one of the two reasons you write a book — especially a novel about a woman who loves a man even though everyone knows she’s too good for him — is to show your wife how much you love her. And so I said, “Do you still love me?” Because this is the second reason you write a book: to make the wife you think already loves you love you even more than you think she does.
“Of course I do,” she said. “But that’s another thing about the book. There is too much about love.”
“What do you mean?”
“The more the book talks about how much Marnie loves Brett, no matter how big a fuck up he is, the less I believe it’s true.”
“I wouldn’t say he’s a ‘fuck up,’” I began, but Marie interrupted and said, again, “If you love me you won’t make me talk about it anymore.”
So I was thinking about all that when Marie said she loved Keefe’s novel and that it was “really, really good,” and then when I asked her if Keefe’s book did what his book jacket promised. Because of course it couldn’t make you feel what it’s like to be blind; because even if Keefe’s book had gotten more reviews than mine (my book hadn’t gotten any) and had made him a lot more money than mine (my book hadn’t made me any money at all), enough money for him to be able to quit teaching and move from Cincinnati to Portland, Oregon, a city that he’d always loved and from where he sent me long, detailed, ecstatic emails telling me how happy he was, how even little things like the brightness of the sun or the intensity of the rain or other weather-related factors made him so happy, how he finally felt like he’d found a home and how he was writing a sequel to his first book in which the blind guy moves from Cincinnati to Portland and finally feels like he’s found a home, even though he can’t see it — even so, there was no way his novel could really make you feel what it’s like to be blind. There was no way you could feel like you were blind unless you were blind, and if that were the case, as I knew it was, then at least Keefe’s book jacket was as wrong as my book jacket was. So when I said to Marie, “Does it make you feel what it’s like to be blind?” my voice was full of all of that — of jealousy and bitterness and smug satisfaction — which was my what my emails to Keefe had been full of, too, which was why he’d stopped returning them. Marie must have heard all the same things that Keefe had read in the emails because she didn’t answer my question. Instead, Marie kissed me on the forehead, said, “Good night, Brent,” and she turned off the light and went to sleep.
And then when she woke up the next morning she was blind. Totally and completely blind.
“You can’t be blind,” I said, and then tried what the narrator’s wife tried in Keefe’s novel when the narrator woke her up and said he was blind: I turned on one light and then another and then finally all the lights in the bedroom; I held up three fingers and asked her how many I was holding; I waved my hands back and forth in front of her face; I even got out my pen flashlight and tried to dilate her pupils. Nothing happened. She was definitely blind. Marie thought she knew why, too.
“Because of Keefe’s book,” she said. She felt around for it on the nightstand next to her side of our bed, and then held it up over her head — upside down — as proof.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “The book jacket promised that it would make you feel was it was like to be blind. It doesn’t say anything about making you blind.”
“Maybe the book jacket was wrong,” she said. Marie’s big, brown eyes were staring at some spot above my head and behind me on the wall. Those eyes were beautiful even under normal circumstances, but now they were sparkling, full of light and more alive than ever, somehow, even though they couldn’t see anything. How was this possible? Keefe had written in his novel that some people are more beautiful blind than they were seeing. I’d thought that was bullshit, and I’d told him so in my last email, the one he hadn’t answered. But maybe Keefe was right; maybe it wasn’t bullshit. “Maybe the book is even better than the book jacket says it is,” Marie said.
“A book about a blind person blinds a person who reads that book and that’s what makes it so good?” I asked. “A book jacket says a book will make you feel what it’s like to be blind and instead the book actually blinds you and that makes it an even better book than the book jacket promises? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Maybe,” Marie said.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I told her. “I’m going to call the museum and tell them you’re going to be out sick for a while, and then I’m taking you to a doctor.”
But the doctors were no help. First, I took Marie to my optometrist, who referred us to someone who specialized in blindness, who referred us to someone who specialized in sudden mysterious blindness, and they all said the same thing: that yes, Marie was blind; and that no, they didn’t know how it happened or whether it was permanent or if there was any treatment. Before we’d gone to the first doctor, I’d made Marie promise not to mention her theory — that reading Keefe’s novel had made her blind — so as not to influence the doctors’ diagnoses of her or her eyes. But with the last doctor, after he’d said the same thing as the others, Marie couldn’t help herself: She blurted out her theory about Keefe’s novel and how really, really good it was, how it was even better than the book jacket promised it was, how it was so good that it had blinded her.
The doctor nodded, took some notes, reviewed what he’d just written, then shrugged and said, “Well, it makes as much sense as anything else.” Which was what I was afraid he’d say. And then he said that he’d heard good things about Keefe’s novel, and that now he had a professional reason to go out and buy it and read it, which he would do that very day. Which was also what I was afraid he’d say.
“Brent here also wrote a book,” Marie said, and then patted me on the shoulder — or at least, she meant to pat me on the shoulder, I think, but instead got me in the neck and because she couldn’t see how far I was away from her there was some extra momentum behind the gesture and it ended up being more of a karate chop than a pat.
“What’s your book called?” the doctor asked me.
“It’s called ‘This is a Story About How Much I Love You,’” I said, and when the doctor didn’t seem to register the title, or even that I’d spoken at all, I added, “It’s about a woman who loves a man even though everyone knows she’s too good for him.”
“Huh,” the doctor said to me. And then to Marie: “I want you to come in tomorrow, and we’ll see if anything has changed.”
“What should we do in the meantime?” I asked.
“You should go home,” he said.
And so we went home. This was in December, less than two weeks before Christmas. By the time we got home it was snowing, big, fat flakes floating and drifting in the streetlights, dusting the cars and the sidewalks and the trees that, before it had started snowing, looked dead and depressing but now looked festive and peaceful. It was the sort of snowfall in which you wanted someone with you, so that you could say, “Look how beautiful the snow is.” But I couldn’t say that to Marie, because she was blind; and I couldn’t say any of that to Keefe, because he was all the way in Portland. I supposed I could call him and tell him about the snow, but that wouldn’t be the same, and besides, he was probably still mad at me from my last email, when I said his novel was bullshit and then, for unnecessary good measure, made fun of his name. “And what kind of name is Keefe anyway?” I’d emailed him. “I bet it’s a family name, but it doesn’t sound like a family name. It sounds like someone wanted to name you Keith except the person naming you had a lisp. Hence Keefe.” I didn’t hear back from him after that. I didn’t care, at first. But now I was regretting it. Now it was snowing and my wife was blind and my best friend wasn’t talking to me, and so with whom to share the vision of the falling snow? With whom to share the vision of the white Christmas lights on our front bushes, the electric candles in our windows, the blinking red and green lights on our tree in the living room? The only person more lonely than a blind person is a person who wants to share something beautiful with that blind person. This was another thing Keefe wrote about in his novel, and another thing he got right.
“It’s so pretty, Marie,” I told her. This caused her to turn around in circles, as if trying to locate that which I said was so pretty. Finally, she gave up, found my arm, took it. I led her inside, guided her to the couch, which she sat on, still in her pea coat and tasseled hat, her still-mittened hands resting in her lap. After a few minutes, she leaned forward, felt around on the coffee table in front of her, and finally found Keefe’s novel, where she’d left it before we’d gone to the doctors. Marie then leaned back and hugged the book to her chest with her right hand and arm, a peaceful, satisfied look on her face, as if she now had the only thing she’d ever wanted, and how was this possible? Did it mean that much to her, this really, really good novel that supposedly blinded her? Her eyes were wide open, staring in the direction of the television, which wasn’t on, and which I didn’t think she’d be able to really appreciate even if it was, but I thought to ask anyway. After all, she was holding Keefe’s novel, even though she couldn’t read that, either. It was a new world we were living in, and I didn’t want to make any assumptions about it.
“Would you like me to turn on the TV?” I asked.
“Not so much,” she said. “Would you read to me from Keefe’s novel, though?”
“I think that’s a bad idea,” I said.
“I’m feeling a little lonely,” she said. “It might make me feel less lonely.”
“But I’m right here,” I said.
“Thank you for being right there,” she said. “But if you read me the novel…it’s something we could do together.
“How about we listen to some music instead?” I said.
Marie stroked the cover of Keefe’s book, sighed, and appeared to be thinking, although maybe, if you’re blind, you always appear to be thinking about something, or not thinking about anything at all. It’s incredible how similar thinking and not thinking look. “Some holiday music?” she finally said.
So I went to the stereo and put on some holiday music. We only had one CD, “A Very Madrigal Christmas,” that Keefe had given us when he’d moved out to Portland but before I started insulting him and he’d stopped emailing me. Keefe was actually on the album — he was the fifth bass bell. When he told me that, I’d at first thought he was joking, but no. He’s always loved madrigal, he told me, and now that his book had done so well and he could quit teaching, he had time to do more with the bells. He told me that Portland had a very active madrigal scene, in addition to all the other things it had going for it. Ding, dong, ding, dong, went the Christmas bells as I sat down next to Marie on the couch. I took her hand — the one that wasn’t holding Keefe’s book. The Christmas lights flashed red and green, red and green. The music was cheerful, all the good will of Portland being filtered through our woofers and tweeters. I took my hand out of Marie’s and held her. She let me, but that’s all she did; she didn’t return my hug, or anything, just sat there with her arms against her body as if they weren’t working, either. This was something that Keefe had also written about in his novel: when his narrator’s eyes first stopped working, it was if everything else stopped working, too. He couldn’t hear as well, his feet tended to fall asleep. And yes, when his wife hugged him, he couldn’t even bring his arms up to hug her back. But that said, Marie looked happy.
And this was another thing that was in Keefe’s book: that the narrator, despite being blind, was happy, at first. Was this was what life was going to be like from now on, I wondered? Was everything Marie and I did going to be further proof of how great and true Keefe’s novel was? I didn’t know if I could take that. And if I couldn’t, what would happen to us? I wasn’t due to start teaching again for another month. I hadn’t written a word since Marie had stopped reading my novel, and since the novel obviously hadn’t made her feel what I wanted her to feel. Without the writing, and without the teaching, I had nothing to fill my days. Was this what were going to do tomorrow and the day after and the day after: Sit on the couch and not talk and listen to Christmas bells and wonder if Marie was ever going to see again and discover other ways in which Keefe’s novel was as really, really good as Marie and everyone else said it was? And how long could I restrain myself before I asked Marie: How come my book didn’t make you love me the way Keefe’s made you go blind? How can I write a book that will make you love me the way Keefe’s story made you go blind? And what will happen if I don’t?
“Hey, let’s do something,” I said
“Do we have to?” Marie asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Why don’t we invite some people over?”
“I guess that’d be OK,” she said.
So I invited some people over. Since Keefe had left, I’d been forced to make due, friend-wise, with some of the other people who taught at the university — a geologist who was OK company except when she was making jokes about finding her ex-husband underneath a rock, which was where he’d crawled back to after she’d left him; and her live-in boyfriend who also happened to be Keefe’s replacement, a young guy who hadn’t yet published a book, not even one as unread and unappreciated as mine was, and who, when you told him a story, about anything, would say, “What kind of story is that?” Anyway, they were pretty much the only people we spent time with since Keefe had left town — Marie’s friends from work stopped being friends after the fundraising dinner incident — and so I called to ask them to come over. The geologist answered.
“What’s the occasion?” she asked.
“Marie has gone blind,” I said.
“Blind?” she said. “Like in Keefe’s book?” which of course, she’d read, and loved, just like everyone else.
“No, not like in Keefe’s book,” I said. “This is not a book. This is not a story. She’s really blind.”
“OK, OK,” she said.
“And she could really use some company right about now, too.”
“We’ll be right over,” she said. And with minutes, she and Keefe’s replacement were there, in our living room.
They’d brought a bottle of wine, as though it were a dinner party; both of them gently put a hand on Marie’s shoulder and asked how she was and then, before she could answer, asked how it happened. She told them, her eyes getting brighter and more sparkling with each telling. And the doctors really don’t know what caused it? They really don’t, Marie said. And you really think reading Keefe’s book has something to do with it? The specialist said it made as much sense as anything else, Marie said. That’s incredible, they said, and Marie agreed with them. “Who knew a book could do something like that?” she said. And then she sat there, her hands in her lap, an awed, peaceful smile on her face, her eyes staring into nothing, everything about her as silent as the falling snow.
I brought their bottles of wine into the kitchen to open them, and our friends followed me.
“Blind,” Keefe’s replacement said. “What kind of story is that?”
“Blind,” the geologist said. “Blind like my ex-husband probably is from crawling back under the rock where I found him.”
“You know what you have to do, don’t you?” Keefe’s replacement said.
“No,” I said. “What?”
“You have to call Keefe and tell him.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because he wrote the book,” he said. “Maybe he’ll have some ideas about what to do now.”
“No way,” I said, and they both groaned. They knew all about Keefe, about his novel and my novel and our falling out. I’d bored them with the story many a time.
“Because,” I said, “whether the book caused her to go blind or whether it didn’t, the only thing that mattered is that she get her eyesight back, and that the book, whether it was really really good or bullshit, wasn’t going to help her see again.”
“It might,” the geologist said.
“It’s not healthy,” I said.
“For whom?” the geologist said.
“I’m not calling him, so forget about it,” I said. “And don’t mention Keefe’s novel to Marie, either.”
“What are we supposed to talk about?” they wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Talk about whatever. Politics. Football. Something will come up.”
So we all took our glasses of wine, went back into the living room, sat down, sipped our wine, looked at Marie (who smiling and looking in the direction of the blackened TV screen) and waited for something to come up, something to happen. Except nothing did. We basically just sat there; Marie held Keefe’s book and smiled and looked at nothing. I bet she was willing to answer questions, but the only questions anyone could think to ask was what it was like, being blind, and how was it possible that Keefe’s novel had done the blinding. Since I’d pretty much forbidden anyone to ask those questions, the only thing left for us to do was drink our wine, fast, one glass and then the next. After the second glass, Keefe’s replacement and the geologist got up to leave.
“You’re leaving already?” I asked. “You can’t leave already.”
“It’s late,” they said.
“It’s only 7:30,” I said.
“Lots of work to do tomorrow,” they said.
“What work?” I said. “Classes don’t start for another month.”
“A month is never as long as you think,” they said, and then turned to Marie. She was smiling in the general direction of the voices, but didn’t get off the couch; she was still holding on to Keefe’s book. “I’m so sorry. But you look great,” they told her, as though it were remarkable that she was still beautiful even though she’d gone blind.
“Thank you,” she said, turning her cheek as though expecting it to be kissed goodbye, but by that point they were all gone, which left the two of us again, sitting on the couch, not talking, listening to Keefe’s bells.
“I love you,” I said.
“I know,” Marie said.
Then, we sat there, as though waiting to find out what happened next. One of the things the reviewers liked so much about Keefe’s novel was that it kept you guessing about what was going to happen next. My response was: Who gives a shit about what happens next? Either he stayed blind or he started seeing again: what else was there? Well, now I knew what the reviewers were talking about. Now I cared. What was going to happen, to us? What were we going to do next?
* * *
One of the things we did next was go back to the doctor, the next day, as ordered. He made her look through the same machine, asked her the same questions, and delivered the same diagnosis.
“Well, you’re still blind,” he said.
“I know,” Marie said, nodding, unperturbed. Ever since she’d gone blind, she’d seemed unperturbed. That morning, as I’d watched her walk up and down the stairs, find her toothbrush and brush her teeth, put water on for tea and then pour it in the mug, I wondered how she’d managed to be so expert at being so blind, so fast, until I remembered that she’d read about a book about it, a really, really good book that she loved so much that she’d read four or five times. No wonder she seemed like an expert; no wonder she wasn’t perturbed.
“We know,” I said. “When is she going to be better? When is she going to see again?”
“Do you have to see to be better?” the doctor asked. It was a line from Keefe’s book. I recognized it, and Marie recognized it, too.
“Oh, I love that part,” she said.
“I know, I know,” the doctor said. “I read the whole book last night. I just couldn’t put it down. It’s so,” and here the doctor visibly struggled to find just the right word. He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and glanced quickly at the eye chart on the wall, as though the word might be scrambled there, before he finally put his glasses on and said, “so wise.”
“That’s exactly right,” Marie said, and then they both launched into a long, friendly debate about what parts of the book they thought were the most wise.
And thus a pattern, a life, was established. Every day we’d go to the doctor’s office. Every day, he’d announce, “Well, you’re blind,” and then he and Marie would talk about Keefe’s book, about how wise or heartbreaking or hopeful or really, really good it was. Every day, after work, Marie would ask me to read Keefe’s book to her, and I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. Every night, we’d sit on the couch, we’d listen to Keefe’s madrigal CD and I’d watch the blinking Christmas lights. “I love you,” I’d tell Marie. “I know,” she’d say back. And then I’d sit there and wonder what was going to happen to us, wonder if Marie was ever going to see again, wonder if she ever even wanted to see again. After a week, I’d had enough and so when Marie and the doctor started talking about the part in the book when Keefe’s narrator’s other senses started compensating for his blindness, when he noticed that he could smell the flowers, I mean really smell the flowers for the very first time, and how, Marie and the doctor said, that made you think about whether you, yourself, had every really smelled the flowers and then I said, “Can we talk about something else, for Christ’s sake?”
They stopped talking and looked at me in their different ways: the doctor resentfully, suspiciously, as though he were a party I’d just crashed; Marie patiently, calmly, as though my outburst were just another part of the story she knew by heart.
“What do you want me to talk about?” the doctor said.
“She’s blind,” I said. “What can you do about it?”
“Good question,” the doctor said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I don’t really have an answer,” he said.
“It’s a mystery,” he said. “Sometimes life’s a mystery.” I recognized this as another line from Keefe’s novel, and before they talk about it, I said, “I don’t think you want to help her see again. I don’t think either of you want her to see again. That’s the mystery here. Marie, why don’t you want to see again?”
Still, Marie didn’t say anything. Still, she nodded and seemed to be thinking, or not thinking. The doctor wrote something on Marie’s chart, then said, “I think we should call the author.”
“The author?” I said.
“The author,” he said, and then held up a copy of “Then, Darkness,” which was the title of Keefe’s novel. “I think he might have some insight.”
“No,” I said.
“What could it hurt?” he said.
“No. I said No!” I yelled, and then I stood up to make my point clear in case the yelling hadn’t. “Marie has me, her husband. She has you, her doctor. She doesn’t need a…” and here I struggled to find the right word, which is a bad sign for a writer, which is the word I finally came up with: “…writer.”
The doctor nodded, wrote something else on Marie chart, and then said to me, “Would you please wait in the waiting room while I talk to your wife?”
“Go ahead, Brent,” Marie said. “I’ll be right there.”
So I waited in the waiting room. Marie came out several minutes later, wielding in one hand a cane the doctor had just given her, and holding in the other a plastic bag full of, I assumed, other things to aid the blind. The doctor was right behind her. I’d cooled off a little bit by that point, and so I apologized for my earlier outburst to the doctor, and then asked, “What can I do to help Marie?”
“Well,” the doctor said. “You could start by showing her that you love her.”
“I can do that,” I said, “I’ve been doing that.” I almost said, “I wrote a whole book about doing that,” but I didn’t, because the remark would be wasted. The doctor hadn’t read the book, and Marie had but didn’t like it — and in any case was blind and couldn’t read it again. That’s when I had an idea.
“Whatever you say,” the doctor said, to me, and then to Marie, because it was a Friday, “I’ll see you Monday.”
Marie and I didn’t talk in the car ride home. Maybe Marie was thinking about my outburst in the doctor’s office. Maybe she was thinking about what the doctor had told her, in private, and about what was in the bag. I wanted to know what she was thinking, of course, and also what was in the bag. But I also knew that if Marie didn’t want to tell me, then I shouldn’t ask. Because this is what love is: allowing the person you love to have their little secrets. In my novel, Brett thought Marnie had a little secret, and that was that she didn’t love him quite as much as he loved her. Finally, he couldn’t help himself. He asked her what her secret was, which was that she didn’t love him quite as much as he loved her, which caused some trouble, most of it, all of it, Brett’s fault, although Marnie eventually forgave him for it and ended up loving him just as much as she did before he made her tell him his secret. But I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as Brett. I was going to let Marie keep her secret, and not ask her what was in the bag, or what she was thinking. Besides, I was too consumed with my idea to think too much about Marie, which was why, after we got home and I got Marie settled on the couch, I said, “I have to go out for a minute.”
“Out where?” Marie said.
“Just for a minute,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” And then I jumped in my car and drove over to my friends’ house. I hadn’t talked to them since they’d fled my house a week earlier. They were there, drinking coffee, looking a little sheepish.
“What the hell happened last week?” I asked them.
“What do you mean?” they said.
“Don’t give me that,” I said. “You left after only two glasses of wine. You’ve never had only two glasses of wine in your life.”
“I’m sorry,” the geologist said
“Me, too,” Keefe’s replacement said.
“Apology accepted,” I said. And then, “But I want you to come over again tonight.”
“I don’t think so,” they said.
“Why not?” I said. “Marie needs you. I need you.”
“She creeps me out,” the geologist said. “All she does is sit there and smile and stare and …what? Think, maybe?”
“Doesn’t she do anything else?” Keefe’s replacement said.
“What do you want her to do?” I asked, and I asked this because I felt the same way: I wanted her to do something, but I didn’t know what.
“She’s blind,” Keefe’s replacement said. “Shouldn’t she reach out gropingly and touch our faces or something?”
“She probably should,” I said. “But she doesn’t. And I don’t think we can tell her to do it if she doesn’t want to do it. Besides, she already knows what we look like. Why would she need to touch our faces?”
“Brent,” Keefe’s replacement said. “She just sits there. Like Buddha. Like she’s judging me. I mean, what kind of story is that?”
“My ex-husband was like that before he crawled back to the rock I’d found him under,” the geologist said. “It’s creepy.”
“I know,” I said. “But I’ve got an idea.” If we had an assigned conversational topic, then spending time with Marie wouldn’t be so awkward, because we’d know, in advance, what to talk about..
“Like a salon,” Keefe’s replacement said.
“Exactly,” I said.
“I don’t know about this,” the geologist. “Is this what Marie wants? In Keefe’s novel all the blind guy wants is to be left alone at first.”
“This isn’t Keefe’s novel,” I said.
“Maybe we should call Keefe anyway,” she said. “He might know what’s best.”
“No!” I yelled, scaring them and causing them to spill their coffee. I closed my eyes, but I could still feel them staring at me. I wondered if this was true with Marie, too, if she could feel us staring at her. Was this what it was like to be blind? To feel what you couldn’t see? But what if you didn’t want to feel it anymore. Was there anyway to make it stop? Finally, I opened my eyes.
“Trust me,” I said. “It’ll be just what Marie needs.”
“She needs not to be blind,” the geologist said.
“Other than that,” I said. “See you tonight at 7.”
“Wait a minute,” Keefe’s replacement said. “What’s the topic going to be?”
“Love,” I said.
“Love?” he said.
“Right,” I said. “Like in my novel. I thought I’d read a passage or two or maybe a chapter from it out loud to help the discussion along. And then you two will help lead the discussion.”
“Brent…” the geologist began, but I cut her off by telling them the rest of my idea, which was, basically, that since Keefe’s novel, which she’d read and loved, had caused her to go blind, it made sense that my novel, which she’d read and not loved, would help her see again, once she’d re-read it, or once she’d had it re-read to her.
“That’s the idea?” the geologist said.
“The very one,” I said. “It should be easy. Since you’ve both read my book.”
“Right,” Keefe’s replacement said. Because he and the geologist both had read the book, I knew they had, because after they’d read it they’d both told me, “I liked it.”
“What part did you like best?” I’d asked both of them.
“Oh pretty much all of it,” they’d both said.
“Right,” Keefe’s replacement said. “We’ve both read it. But it’s been a while and we’ve probably forgotten some stuff. Why don’t we come to your house tomorrow instead of tonight? That’ll give us some time to read it.”
“Re-read it,” the geologist said.
“Re-read it,” Keefe’s replacement said.
“Fine,” I said. I knew now that they hadn’t actually read my novel when they’d said they’d read it. But I couldn’t risk getting on their case about it right then; I needed them. “See you tomorrow.”
Then, I went home. It was snowing, again, but the Christmas tree lights weren’t on, and neither were any house lights that I could see from outside. I opened the front door, and I immediately heard voices coming from the living room, which was to the left of the front hall and which was also dark. I walked into the living room, and the voices got louder, a man’s voice and a woman’s voice, arguing about something.
“You can’t just sit here in the dark all the time,” the woman’s voice said.
“Everything is dark to me, all the time,” the man’s voice said, in baritone. “Darkness is all there is. Darkness is all I have, all I am.”
“Oh no,” I said, turning on the light. There was Marie, sitting on the couch, Keefe’s book in her hand.
“Hi, Brent,” she said.
“You’re more than just darkness,” said the woman’s voice. “You’re my husband.”
“Oh no,” I said. I walked over to the stereo, hit STOP, then EJECT, and out popped Keefe’s book, on tape. I looked at the spool, and it was in the middle, when the book got dark, right before it got light again. “Where did you get this?”
“The doctor gave it me to me,” she said. And then, before I could say anything else, she said, “I asked you to read me Keefe’s book, and you wouldn’t.”
I could hear the hurt in her voice; it was the same kind of hurt that Brett could hear in Marnie’s voice when he forgot their anniversary in my novel, but worse, because it was actually me, Brent, who’d forgotten Marie’s birthday, in real life, and so Marnie’s pain was actually Marie’s pain, and so was this, and I’d made all of it. The book might have been poorly made, but the pain wasn’t.
“I’m sorry, Marie,” I said. “I just don’t understand why it’s so important that I read Keefe’s book to you.”
“I don’t understand why it’s so important to you that you not,” she said. And then, “Please push PLAY.”
I walked over to the stereo, pushed PLAY. “You’re my husband,” the woman said, again, with emphasis. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” said the man.
“I love you, Marie,” I said.
“Oh come fucking on,” she said. “Is that all you can say? You love me. Good for you. But who really cares? Who wants to read a whole book about you loving me? Who really wants to hear about it all?”
“You do?” I said, even though I knew she didn’t, and sure enough, she said, “I don’t.”
“Listen,” I said. Because the man on the tape was still saying, “I love you,” was saying it over and over and over again. “This is the only thing I know how to say. This is the only thing anyone knows how to say,” which would have been a more powerful point if the man on the tape hadn’t punctuated his sentence of “I love you’s” with, “But I’m blind. That’s what matters. Love doesn’t matter anymore.”
“I told you,” Marie said. “I’ve been telling you.” She got up off the couch, her cane in one hand and Keefe’s book in the other, and made her way upstairs. Meanwhile, the book on tape played on, reminding me that my book never even made it onto tape, reminding me of all the things I could have said in it and out of it, but didn’t.
I slept on the couch that night, and Marie and I avoided each other the next day, too. But still, I had hope. I had hope that Keefe’s replacement and the geologist would come over and I would convince Marie to join us while I read them a chapter of my book and that, somehow, Marie would see something in it, and me, that she hadn’t before. That was my hope. And hope, as Keefe’s book on tape had told me the night before, is the thing you hold onto when you’ve lost something else you think you can’t do without. So that was the hope I held onto while I killed time, waiting for seven o’clock to roll around, for Keefe’s replacement and the geologist to ring my doorbell.
The doorbell rang. I looked at my watch. It was 6:45; they were early, apparently. I walked over to the door. Marie was upstairs, doing who knows what. “Someone’s at the door!” I yelled up to her, and then opened the door.
It was Keefe, scarfed, overcoated, and red-cheeked. We stood there, looking at each other for a minute, until I finally said, “You look good.” Because what do you say to your best friend, your best friend who you’ve insulted, your best friend who you’ve missed, your best friend who has written a better book than yours, your best friend who written a book so good that it made your wife blind and drove her away from you the way you drove away your best friend? What do you say in situation like that, to a person like that? “You look great,” I said.
“Thanks,” Keefe said.
I stuck out my hand and he shook it, seriously, soberly.
“Hello, Keefe,” Marie said.
I turned around. Marie was standing there, cane in one hand, suitcase in the other. She was smiling, and in the smile was her secret: While I was in the waiting room, she and the doctor talked about what she wanted to do next. She told him that I refused to read Keefe’s book to her, that the book and her going blind from it had driven me closer to craziness and further away from her, further away from love, which was all I would talk about, in the book and out of it. “Do you want to call Keefe?” the doctor asked. “I do,” she said. So they called Keefe while I sat in the waiting room, and explained everything to him. “Do you want me to come get you?” Keefe asked. “I do,” Marie said. I could read all that in her face; I knew, finally, what she was thinking. I turned back to Keefe. There was a look on his face, somewhere between, “I’m so sorry my book made you blind,” and “It’s so amazing that my book made you go blind.” It was a look somewhere between tragedy and awe, between mourning and joy. Love, in other words.
I didn’t try to stop them, didn’t say another word to them and they didn’t say one to me, either. Marie handed Keefe her suitcase, and laced her cane-free hand through the hook of his elbow. They walked together toward Keefe’s rental car, got in, and drove off, just as the geologist and Keefe’s replacement were driving up. They got out of the car and watched with me as Keefe and Marie turned a corner and disappeared. It was snowing, again; my house was again lit up like Christmas, which was now only a couple days away.
“Was that Keefe?” his replacement asked.
“And was that Marie with him?” the geologist asked.
“What happened?” Keefe’s replacement asked.
“I told them a story,” I said.
“Oh no,” they both said. “You read something from your novel, didn’t you?” When they said this, I knew that they’d read the book this time, that they’d actually read it, and I felt so grateful to them for doing it, and so sorry for making them.
“No,” I said. “I told them another story. A story about a man who wanted to tell his wife that he hated her and that he was glad she was blind (she was blind) and that she could stay blind for all he cared, that she could go deaf, too, and mute, and diabetic, whatever, he didn’t care, he did not, care and he’d never cared, and he’d never loved her. And then she died, right before Christmas, and his only regret was that she died and left him forever before he told her these things. The end.”
“What kind of story is that?” Keefe’s replacement wanted to know. “What the hell kind of story is that?” He waved his hands, as though the story was all around him and he wanted to shoo it away.
But the geologist knew. Maybe she was telling the same story when she talked about her ex-husband who’d crawled back under a rock. Maybe she’d end up telling the same story about Keefe’s replacement, too. “That is a story about how much he loves her,” she said, and then to me: “That was a story about how much you love her.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “That was not a story about how much I love her.” But it was, it is.