Sheila Squillante is a poet and essayist living in central Pennsylvania. She is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and her work has appeared widely in print and online venues such as Brevity, Waccamaw, Phoebe, The Rupmus, Literary Mama, Sweet: A Literary Confection and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Penn State.
The Saltine is the perfect vehicle, the perfect balm.
Humble and forthright, perforated for your convenience. What will you ask of it? Top it with hot butter and brown-sugar-caramelized into crunchy toffee. Spread thickly with milk chocolate, crystals of sea salt flecking the surface, sparkling like gems. Like life. Crush it beneath a wooden rolling pin and mix with cornmeal to bread banana peppers for deep fry. Dip it gingerly into chicken broth your mother brings to your room when you're fluish. Optimistically nibble during morning sickness , on the plane to Germany with your in-laws, the crumbs tumbling into your two-year-old's hair. He's in your lap, on top of your tender belly, stuck to his sister inside you, his long legs tucked up, for the next seven hours.
Simple cracker, think about buttering it. A sweet, creamy stick and a gleaming-dull knife in hand. In Jim's hand, that is, because you cannot eat Saltines without remembering him.
Jim, your best friend's husband.
Jim, your ex-husband's best friend.
Whatever else he was to whomever else, he was also simply your friend. There he is, in the living room, or the dark green kitchen of the apartment he shared with Kris, his wife and your best friend, in Hamden, CT, grinding coffee beans. You will drink it together from matching yellow earthenware cups. Jim made the best coffee you've ever had from a home pot. Saltines and butter were his favorite snack. Saltines are his body, dancing naked and unabashed in front of whomever, even you, with the heat cranked to ninety in the winter. Body battered by Crohns Disease and diabetes, by a rotting, re-sectioned gut. Everyday pain. Saltines are his spirit, failing, a little further every day.
In Germany you nibble German crackers, something like Saltines, suck on crystallized ginger, break Unisom tablets in half and swallow them after your morning vomit. In this pregnancy, sickness extends past noon, assaults you in the car as your mother-in-law passes you air-sickness bags she has taken from the plane. It stalks you up the mountain roads in the Black Forest, all the way to the farm restaurant. Your father-in-law parks and you leap from the back seat, spring to the side of the barn so your son won't have to watch you heave, and up everything comes, again and again. When you are through, you laugh to find a thoughtful horse standing by. Her long muzzle close enough to stroke. You wipe your mouth and laugh. Go in and join your family for another lunch. Your body is good at this, you think. Since there is no foreseeable end in sight, you decide to embrace this as virtue. Good job, body! Some bodies can run, others fuck like fireworks. Yours knows how to purge itself. To cleanse. To emit. In Germany everything is covered with brown sauce and onions and the asparagus is white and wormish, cooked to paste. Your son and husband eat wienershnitzel and fries. You vomit crackers and ginger and Unisom. Fail to keep everything in.
It's Father's Day in Germany and you are all getting ready to go out for lunch to celebrate the men around you. In the upstairs bedroom of your husband's aunt's house, you check your email for the first time since being overseas. Dear Sheil—your former father-in-law writes—this is a terrible thing to tell you over email, but I knew you would want to know. I'm writing to tell you that Gerry S. has taken his own life. I'm sorry. I know how much he meant to you. He swallowed a bottle of pills…
Eight years ago in Connecticut, another friend, another swallowed bottle. And nine years ago, you call the ambulance that saves Jim the first time. It's only luck. You are on your way out the door when he calls, loopy from loss and managing real pain with pills. Not much different from every other conversation. Pleading and pitiful. You feel for him. Both of your marriages are over now. Both of you so broken and unsure. But there's something more than only broken in his voice today. Something frighteningly sure. So you make the call and he lives, achingly, one more year.
The year of your divorce, you are working at the coffee house, trying to save money so you can get back to school. Gerry sometimes visits you on shift. He has clients in New Haven. He takes you out for lunch to the sushi place on the corner of Whitney and Trumbull St. You let him talk because you don't know what to say, concentrate instead on ingesting the soft packets of fish dipped in soy and extra wasabi so you can cry in public and nobody will care. You are as mute as you were that night in tenth grade, in his basement, listening to Alphaville on vinyl, your eyes going wacky from red and green hexagons on the carpet. You thought it was a date, imagined he might want to kiss you, wondered when he would, but his questions were all about Susan.
You've been friends since middle school, right? Does she like U2? What color roses should I get?
Pink, you tell him. I think she will really like pink.
Gerry stands at the counter while you wipe things down, change the brew baskets, make mental check lists of all the things that must be done. He is dressed in his lawyer clothes, slightly rumpled dress shirt and tie. He always, even in high school, looked like a grown man. Here, he says, and slides a plain white envelope toward you. Susan and I love your writing. We love you. We want you to have this. You open the envelope and find a check for $500 made out to you. The memo line reads, For grad school
The day you move out of the brown townhouse you shared with your husband, Jim and Gerry both haul boxes up from the basement, help you collect all your pain, sort through your resentments. They let you cry but crack jokes all the while.
Jim calls you Happy Pants to taunt you. Walks into the bathroom while you are taking a shit. Laughs while you scream GET OUT GET OUT JIM GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE NOW.
Gerry makes lewd jokes about your breasts. Sat across the table from you at the homecoming dance senior year and flicked spitballs into your Gunne Sax cleavage, henceforth to be known as Gerry's Favorite Dress.
They are not friends with each other, just with you.
You and Kris visit Jim's doctor together. This before the days of HPAA, privacy being a concept far beyond you two couples who spent so much time in each other's company that friends joked about it being a group marriage. Weekends in their Westville or Hamden apartment, sleeping in the guest room. Sundays cooking elaborate brunches-you and Kris in the kitchen, Lyle Lovett on the stereo. Your ex and Jim walking the neighborhood, looking for newspapers but bringing home mangy-stray dogs instead.
Jim's doctor became a friend in those years of multiple intestinal surgeries, convalescence, constant pain-management, depression. He loved Jim just like you did. Loved his smart-assery, his largesse.
He means to do this, he told you both that day in his office. He means to die and I believe that he will succeed in spite of what we all wish, what anyone can do.
You held hands, nodded your heads, knew he was right.
One Sunday morning, the summer after your husband leaves, after you move out of your shitty brown townhouse and into the basement apartment by yourself, Gerry calls you at seven, says, Get your clothes on, Susan and I are coming to get you. These days you do what people tell you to do because you can't figure out what to do with your hands. You climb into the back seat of the car driven by two of your oldest friends, now married for five years, and let them drive you all the way to Newport, Rhode Island for brunch. A three hour drive and a two hour wait later and you are swooning together over pecan-crusted, cream cheese-stuffed, maple syrup-glazed French toast. Overfull of food and friendship and love.
Your boxes are all packed into various cars, the small U-Haul you rented for the move. You tell your friends to leave the Christmas tree, its fake brown bark and slicing needles, in the basement for your ex or your landlord or for nobody. You don't want it. You want nothing more than to see Naugatuck in your rear view mirror, to steer the car down Rubber Avenue to route 39-that road that connected your life with your husband with that of your best friends, Kris and Jim, in Westville, and, later, in Hamden. Jim is driving his own car-the red Honda you will buy off of his sister after he dies-packed to the roof with the stuff of your marriage, your sadness, your stupid, stupefied hope. He leaves first, and you all follow, a caravan of expectation and resignation. Of this is what it's come to, and let's get it over with. In Westville he turns left while you continue on to Hamden. You don't know where he's gone, but somehow he beats you to your apartment, places pink roses in a silver vase on the mantel. Welcomes you home.
You are almost divorced. Just waiting for the judge to make the paperwork official, to give you back your last name. You cut your hair boy short, buy your first pair of Doc Martens to wear to work. They are dark green and let you pretend you are a tiny bit punk rock. One day, you tell nobody and leave the café on your lunch break, walk down State Street to Studio Zee. You hand the man your wrist and ask him to ink you a delicate circle of vines there.
To help me remember, you say.
Something green and growing. Something tender and tremulous and alive.
It's early morning on some day you cannot name and the phone in your basement apartment rings and rings. You follow it finally out of a deep sleep-you had been at the hospital with Kris, sitting with Jim, watching him until very late the night before. It's your ex-husband or another mutual friend calling to say Jim's family decided to turn off his life support.
I'm sorry, Sheil, he's gone.
You throw on your clothes and drive across town to tell Kris. They are divorced but that doesn't matter.
She was his heart. She needs to know and you can't believe they didn't call her first. You knock and knock and finally she comes to the door, disheveled, cloaked in sleep and pre-grief. Kris, you say. And she sees your face and you see that she already knows.
The day Gerry is buried, you walk the paved path next to meadows filled with German chamomile and green nettles, the evening light gold and glowing. Your son runs ahead toward the playground; your unborn daughter turns your guts inside out. So far from home, from Susan, your oldest friend, now widowed and worn, you manage to keep everything in.
The day Jim is buried, you sit next to Kris in church, hold her hand while his sister speaks about all the love in his life, all the pain and support. She looks right at you both and you feel broken for your friend, not technically a widow since their so recent divorce.
But her heart, her heart.
Jim and Kris were divorced when Jim died.
Gerry and Susan were separated when Gerry died.
You think about how your mother and father were also divorced when your father died-not a suicide, but a shock, nonetheless-and you know that it does not matter. You think about the Roethke poem about his student who fell from the horse and died. The teacher's lament—I, with no rights in the matter,/ neither father, nor lover—and you know that there are no rights and that there are only rights.
That this is your right.
You loved these two suicides and they were not your lovers or brothers or fathers . The heart-shaped spray in your father's casket that said, from your loving wife.
Categories do not matter. They are no balm.
You think of your ex-husband, who you no longer love. You chop onions and peppers for chili and think, unbidden, of his eventual death. You allow yourself to cry for him now and you know you will cry for him then.
You know that loving anyone—however long they stay, whichever way they leave— means you take them. You take them in.
It means you open yourself to grief-inconvenient, tender-green and tenuous. A delicate circle, always-growing and alive.