Love, Loss, Live
The queue stretched for pages. The emails were from Emmas and Jens and Elizabeths and Annas and Rebeccas and Andreas and Melanies. Ashleys were overrepresented for some reason, as were Roxies. The subject lines for the most part stuck to “Condolences” or “My Deepest Sympathy” followed by the emoji of hands clasped in prayer.
It had been Kit’s idea to put up a letter on his website. “Something from the heart,” she’d told him. Ten years earlier he might have objected. A letter felt exposing. But he was in no position at this point to say no to his publicist, and so he dictated a few lines by phone, which she stitched into a letter that began: “My best friend, my co-adventurer in love and life has left us, and I am lost in the darkness.”
The letter, or rather, Kit, went on from there to praise his wife’s acting (“brutally honest, without compromise”), then pivoted to the personal (“what I knew best about this remarkable woman.”) And where to begin with his Claire-Bear? There was her laugh (“infectious”), her curiosity (“insatiable”), her joys (“her children, her family, her rescue dogs”), her ferocity (massaged by Kit into “her ferocious quest for justice and rights to the world’s wrongs”), her courage (“never a challenge she didn’t meet head-on, including her final battle for her health.”) The conclusion mixed metaphors, dangled from the chandelier a bit, but all-in-all, got the job done: “Claire was our comet and we – myself and her children – her tail. We are lost without her, bereft and broken. But her light still burns, a beacon as we chart a way forward, as she would have wanted.”
Kit had posted the letter at 11:59 p.m. The next morning, Kit texted him the headline from one of the industry papers: “Aiden Jones Pens Love Letter to His Late Wife Claire Thomas.” Next she texted him the password for his website’s email. When he checked the account at 9 a.m., there were dozens of emails; by noon, hundreds; and now, past midnight, thousands.
He swirled his glass of whiskey, rattling the ice cubes.
He scrolled and scrolled, stunned. Never had he received a response like this to a film. Even Claire’s biggest films didn’t generate an outpouring of this sort. The letter had tapped something, inspired strangers to stuff emails full of sympathy, stories of their own love and loss, and offers. My God, the offers. There were offers to make him supper, walk his dogs, clean his house, paint his portrait, read his fortune, tend his lawn, manicure his hands, babysit his children, detail his car, build him a bonfire (meant to — what? —serve as a funeral pyre?)
He knew what Claire would have said: They want to fix you. They all think they can fix you. And then she would have laughed.
He rattled the ice again.
He should have been exhausted. The day had been given over to funeral planning and the night consumed with the Harry Potter movie the children insisted he watch even though the nanny was on the couch beside them. He felt wired as he scrolled. He opened an email here and there. A good number included photos. The photos showed middle-aged women, cheeks maybe a little plumped, foreheads smoothed, the fixes incomplete, unable to erase the toll of normal lives. Until her illness, Claire remained fresh-faced, her beauty protected fiercely with refused afternoons at the beach, denied alcohol, five inhales of one cigarette a day. She claimed to refuse Botox and fillers, even though he suspected she paid visits to a dermatologist with a stealth office behind a nail salon in Glendale. He wouldn’t have cared. He admired her dedication, her unsentimental practicality about her beauty. She was a good actress. But a pretty face had made her—which was to say, had made them.
The alcohol no longer swirled at the front of his head. It had settled in his stomach as queasy, stony tonnage. He’d never liked this hour, the way its quiet forced you to be alone with your thoughts. As a kid, he’d refused time in a treehouse his dad built for him, furnished with a built-in chair and table. His mother had stashed a bear-proof cooler of snacks and strung a hammock from post to post. He’d gone up once, then ignored it. He preferred being with people, diverted.
He clicked open another email. It began like the rest — “Dear Aiden, My deepest condolences …” — What made him read on, what propelled him past the opening, he wasn’t sure. Maybe the plain language, unmuddled, without drama. “We don’t know each other. I’m a nurse about to start my shift, but I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw the letter you wrote about your wife. Honestly, I’ve never done this – written to a movie star — but I also recently lost my husband and reading your letter, I could feel your heartbreak, the devastation of your loss, and I wanted to wish you well and say that I hope you and your children are able to hold close the memories of your lovely wife.”
He looked at the timestamp of the email. 4:55 a.m. Had she written it in the breakroom of the hospital? In her car? Her car, he decided. Actually not a car. One of those cross-over vehicles, with an air freshener hanging from the mirror. She probably was already in scrubs (isn’t that what nurses wore?) and sneakers. Those white sneakers with squishy rubber soles. One sole was hiked up under her ass, which probably was a little squishy, rounded and soft in the way an ass can be when it’s not pummeled into toned submission by a Brazilian trainer each afternoon.
Claire had been clear at the end, business-like in the way she could be when she talked about sensitive matters. “You should date.” She’d said this as she lay in her hospice bed. He’d balked, of course. Because the directive came out of nowhere. And because their kids had been right there, sitting in chairs, stiff and scared because he’d told them the end was near. But she’d repeated the words, this time insisting she meant it— that it was karma. She was a big believer in karma, which she defined, more or less, as quid pro quo. So that he was left to understand that she was giving this blessing because it was what she would have wanted from him, a blessing to date new men.
He read the email again. The woman had signed it Cathy.
Quickly, because sleep was coming on now, he wrote, “Hi Cathy, Thanks for the lovely sentiments. Much appreciated. Coffee, sometime?” He hit send, closed the laptop. He left the last of the whiskey for Irma to pour out in the morning, then walked upstairs and stood in the hallway a moment before walking into his oldest child’s bedroom and curling up on the floor.
The next day, Aiden stopped Irma as she was headed out the door. She did the shopping in the afternoons. But now he offered to do it. He needed a reprieve from the texts. All day they’d been arriving from Kit, updating him on the guest-list, the flowers, the limo seating. Work for you? she appended at the bottom of each. He left his phone charging on the kitchen counter, bundled his youngest into the carseat of the Land Rover. Driving to Ralphs, at one point, he thought he saw a white sedan following him. Then in the parking lot, hiking the child out of the car seat, the corner of his eye caught a flurry of motion. He thought he might have been seeing things, the woozy work of fatigue. But soon after he heard a collective murmuring, then shouting and fulmination (Shit! There he is!) followed by a stampede of footsteps, a cannonade of clicks.
His child heard it all too. She looked at him as if perhaps she had done something wrong. He smiled at her, then realized what that might look like and rearranged his face into something more serious, like mourning. He wasn’t accustomed to being hounded by the paparazzi. With Claire, yes. Always when they were together. Alone, photographers rarely bothered with him. This had been the case since the start of his career. His big break had come as a serial killer. A review at the time called him “the boy next door you never want to meet.” The label stuck, producing more roles in slashers. The work was steady, kept him out of commercials. Nothing that yielded the kind of stardom Claire was on her way to when he met her. This was at a party at a director’s house in the canyon. She’d arrived late, coming straight from the set of a thriller already generating buzz. She’d stood at the drinks table with determined poise, ebony hair falling over arching breasts, cheekbones of bracketed symmetry, eyes like mineral deposits. It was obvious to everyone she was on the cusp, about to be anointed the next big thing. And to his surprise, she wanted him along for the ride. They’d gone home together that night and afterward were rarely seen apart. There were walks on the beach, hikes in Griffith Park, an adopted a dog, all of their acts of coupling recorded in the tabloids, a serialized tale of burgeoning love.
It went without saying he would attend the thriller premier. For weeks he dreaded it, the idea of being a sidekick, the working actor attached to this found miracle. He had ambition too. Already, it was feeling bruised. Yet the premier had been nothing like he expected. The cameras wanted her, yes. They whistled for her attention, pleaded for her smile, begged for a different tilt of her head. But they wanted him too, paused the action when he left the frame. It was obvious to him, and to her. Plain as the beauty mark beneath her lower lip. He transformed her from vixen to beauty, from threat to port. In other words: She was more with him.
Their coupledom wasn’t given a nickname. They weren’t big enough for that. Or perhaps the names Aiden and Claire didn’t naturally combine. Kit said the tabloids resisted a moniker because it would have cheapened them. The public liked their coupling, pinned hopes on it as possibly surviving the grind of fame. There was reason to hope—two children produced quickly, a home in the safer confines of Brentwood, photographed outings labeled as evidence of normalcy. Picnicking! Cleaning up the yard! Carving jack o’ lanterns! Aside all that: his unyielding support as Claire landed an ever-expanding body of roles. Roles that earned critical acclaim, nods from the Academy. He was ever by her side on the red carpet, smiling, the proud husband whose own film career by appearances (and in fact) had foundered.
Kit did her best to make known his interest had branched into theater, his first love. There were a few summer stock performances, but after a time, those too fell away. Claire told him he should get a hobby. He was mopey around the house; it grated on her. After the birth of their third child he thought about leaving the marriage. He’d learned of affairs, one ongoing with the producer of his last film. Yet in the end he’d done nothing. To leave Claire was to leave a part of himself that burned brighter, a part he liked, even preferred.
Now, walking across the parking lot, he could feel it once again. As he lifted his daughter into the seat of a cart, as he clicked straps around her middle, as he kissed her head, photographers elbowed each other, fell over one another angling for the shot. Soon bystanders were looking for the cause of the commotion. Their recognition was instantaneous. The women (and they all were women) could not turn look away. They simply could not. They flashed smiles. Courteous, admiring smiles that had nothing pitying in them, nothing belittling. He guessed if roles were reversed, had he died and Claire lived, she would have received none of this. A middle aged widow was a woman left behind, simply now without. But a widower. Here was a man bearing up under his imposed sorrow of loss, moving through its undulations and lashings, like live-action evidence of his potential for devotion and steadiness, those priceless commodities.
What had Kit written in the letter? He and the children were a tail to Claire’s comet, searching for her light.
He could think of no role he could ever play that would garner this again.
This pure adoration.
Home, he set the grocery bags on the counter and called for Irma. Once he’d handed off his youngest, he unplugged his phone and made his way to the veranda. He settled himself on the teak lounger. There were messages from Kit. Three in the last hour. He opened the email program. Dozens of new emails. He thumbed down, stopping on one with a reply circle.
“Is this really you? If it is, then, yes to coffee. Anytime.”
There had been a period last year when he tried to shore up what was left of their marriage. Claire had landed a role as the matriarch in a period drama. Four months of filming was set to begin in Australia. On a whim, he suggested he go with her. They could bring the kids, rent a house in Byron Bay, tour the Outback. She’d looked touched. For the first time in forever, he felt like he’d done something right. He made plans. Found a school for the kids. Hired a driver for the tour.
Then she’d gotten sick.
She never wanted him to spend the night at the hospital. “I’m horrible,” she’d say. When he protested, she insisted it was best. Mulling the impasse he considered once again the night they met. When she was all anyone wanted. Over the years he’d puzzled over her choice of him. It was easy to reduce their marriage to one of convenience. They were movie stars who understood the other’s world. Except that their marriage was entirely inconvenient. Two egos forever clashing, battling for place. There had to have been more. Something beneath. But what? Standing by her bedside, he’d wanted to tell her she wasn’t horrible. She wasn’t horrible at all, and even if she were, there were no cameras, no one watching. It was just him. But he didn’t. Because what if that was it?
The Denny’s off the 101 was, to his relief, mostly empty. A woman he surmised to be Cathy was seated at a booth. She was not beautiful like Claire. Which was not to say she wasn’t pretty. Her eyes were a fawn color, the same as the freckles spotting her nose. She had a high forehead and small mouth that curled up at the corners, spidering lines into her cheeks. She was not in scrubs. She’d worn a cotton pink sweater and a skirt with little whales printed on it. Her hands rested on the table holding the temple tips of tortoise shell sunglasses. She had slender fingers, nothing like Claire’s blunt ones that had been unusually large for a body her size.
“Cathy?” he asked.
She looked up. “Wow, it is you.”
“In the flesh.”
“I really wasn’t sure if I was emailing you or—”
“Not an imposter,” he said, smiling the half-cocked smile he’d once been known for.
They ordered coffees. She talked about the 101 this time of day, how it was ridiculous people talked about a freeway in L.A. She was nervous. Nervous people in L.A. talked about the freeways. He asked where she was from. She named a small town in the Midwest. He nodded in surprise. He’d grown up on the other side of the state.
“What are the chances?” she asked, smiling. She had nice teeth—small, white, not blindingly so.
The waitress arrived with the coffee pot. They took refills. He asked if she wanted something to eat. She shook her head. She didn’t eat before a shift. He asked about her work. She said she’d been on staff at her hospital for twenty years, in pediatric oncology for 13 of them, which was hard except for the days when the staff threw parties for children finally getting to go home. Her husband, Ryan, a P.A., who worked a floor below hers, used to come to the parties and juggle bags of jelly beans. At the mention her late husband’s name, she looked down at her coffee mug.
His phone buzzed in his back pocket. “One sec,” he said, pulling out the phone.
Kit had texted to ask if the reception could be moved to a larger tent. The caterer was saying the guests wouldn’t fit in the smaller one under construction in the backyard. He lay the phone on the table and looked up to see Cathy staring out the window.
“Sorry,” he said with what he hoped sounded like sincerity.
“Not a problem,” she said.
They both took sips. After a moment, he asked, “So why L.A.?”
“I’ve always loved the ocean,” she said.
“The ocean is great.”
She fingered the handle of her mug. “That, and I was 17 and I thought you could be someone out here.”
He felt another ping of recognition. This one stronger. He too had gotten here as soon as he could, done whatever it took to make it. Claire hadn’t understood this hunger, this desire to not be what you had come from. She’d been a Harrow Year Twelve when a talent scout spotted her shopping with friends at King’s Road. She modeled a year, then been whisked to Hollywood. Her ambition had been as big as his, yet somehow purer, more formidable. She’d wanted what was coming to her.
“I guess we all want to be somebody out here,” he said.
They were quiet a moment, and then Cathy said, “I’m sure Claire knew she was lucky to have you.”
Her eyes shone a bit, which made his own go hot in the corners. She was thinking of her Ryan, he guessed. Remembering how they had been lucky; how they had been somebodies for each other. Suddenly a part of him wanted to reach for her hand, those slender fingers with fingertips that would have felt like rain drops.
“You’re very nice,” he said.
She smiled again, reflecting back the moment, nothing more. So that he understood she had not seen his films. She had not seen his wife’s films, or his. She glanced at her watch. She needed to get going. Her shift started in an hour. She reached for her wallet and pulled a ten from it. He waved the money off. She pushed herself to standing.
He said, “I have your email.”
“Okay,” she said.
He wasn’t sure she believed him. “Cathy82.”
She smiled. “That’s the one.”
He sat a moment when she was gone. He felt a strange buzz. Which was what? He couldn’t place the feeling. Except to say it was like what he’d felt when he first arrived in L.A., the possibility of what came next. The afternoon rush was underway. The thrum. He needed to get going. It would be hours in the mess if he didn’t leave now. The kids were waiting. He’d promised to watch Harry Potter again.
The waitress was standing at the end of the table. He shook his head, thanked her. But she didn’t leave. She stood staring at him, scrutinizing him, recognition arriving as her face took on a look of surprise, which had on the other side of it dismay. He wanted to explain that the meeting had been business; he hadn’t been on a date with another woman before his late wife was laid to rest. But before he could say anything, her face softened, tilted, the way you do to offer condolences. It occurred to him she hadn’t noticed Cathy. Or if she had, she’d forgotten about her. She had read the letter and was immersed in the tragedy of his solitude, his fealty, his devotion. He could feel it again, the terrible beauty of its headlong plunge.
He was beloved, beloved.
And yes, on second thought, he wanted another cup of coffee.
Sarah Schweitzer is a freelance journalist and former staff writer for the Boston Globe where she was named a Pulitzer finalist for feature writing. On the fiction side, her stories have been published in PIF and Flash Fiction Magazine and she was named a semi-finalist in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.