The Paris Review – Other People’s Partings

Fall River, Massachusetts. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

So many accounts of Chekhov’s death, many of them exaggerated, some outright bogus. The only indisputable thing is that he died at forty-four. That’s etched in stone in Moscow. I like to read them anyway. I’m not alone. Chekhov death fanatics abound.

His last sip of champagne. The whole thing about the popping of the cork, I forget what exactly. The enigmatic words he likely never said: Has the sailor left? But wouldn’t it be wonderful if he had said them? What sailor? Where’d he go?

His wife, the actress Olga Knipper, wrote that a huge black moth careened around the room crashing into light bulbs as he took his final breaths. Olga was present in the room, of course, but I don’t think she was above creating myths, either. They had only so little time together, less than five years.

In 2018, a team of scientists examined the proteins in the bloodstains on Chekhov’s nightshirt, in an effort to determine the precise cause of death. The shirt had been preserved as a relic.

This morning I’ve been wandering through Gustaw Herling’s Journal Written at Night, a book that took thirty years to finish and that consists of essays and fragments that read like private messages. Herling was a member of the Polish resistance who was charged, by the Soviets, to hard labor in a prison camp near the Arctic Ocean. The reason? The Soviets didn’t like his name. Herling, in Russian, sounded too much like Göring, as in Hermann. After his release, he spent much of the rest of his life in Italy. In a brief paragraph on the death of Chekhov, Herling includes a detail I don’t remember having come across before. Herling says that in June 1904, just after Chekhov and Olga arrived in Badenweiler, Chekhov insisted they change hotels because he wanted a room with a balcony. They found another hotel. Nobody ever mentions the balcony. Or that Chekhov must have spent hours sitting out there, watching people go in and out of the post office across the street. Till the end, he worked. Imagine him studying each face, what he could see of them from up there, every gesture.

***

In chapter nine of Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the HolidayLuisa, a graceful matriarch and an otherwise kind and generous person, has this thought about two people in love:

One would always think of oneself as being on the side of love, ready to recognize it and wish it well—but, when confronted with it in others, one so often resented it, questioned its true nature … Was it merely jealousy, or a reluctance to admit so noble and enviable a sentiment in anyone but oneself?

Luisa is having lunch with Sophie, her niece, and Tancredi, an old friend. Sophie is visiting Italy from England. Tancredi is allegedly an architect, though he never seems to have to go to work. These two have only recently fallen hard for each other and are so overcome they can hardly contain themselves. Luisa adores her niece, and Tancredi, well, he’s practically part of the family, too. Of course, there are complications. Aren’t there always? Tancredi’s married (separated) and there are two children—or is it three? I forget. They’re hardly mentioned. Anyway, why not be happy that these two are happy? Why not simply wish lovers well? Look at them. Deep in that period when everything, including time itself, is weightless. Why? We know why. Because new love is always a little repulsive to the rest of us. Unless—need it be said?—we’re one of the two. To be a third at a table with lovers in the beginning throes is a special hell, as intolerable as it is annoying. Any third exists, if at all, only on the periphery. Luisa is sitting at her own table and she’s nowhere. And the fact that Sophie and Tancredi are trying so desperately to concentrate on Luisa only makes it worse. The only respite is the storm that’s begun to wail outside. It gives Luisa something else to think about. The garden, imagine all the destruction taking place in the garden.

Does Luisa take pleasure in the fact that she knows it won’t last? That soon enough Sophie and Tancredi will be knocked off their ecstatic perch, just as, outside in the garden, the urns are currently being blown off their pedestals? Do I take pleasure in it? Every patient sentence in this short burst of a novel brings us closer to the end of these two, of this time that isn’t time. Maybe all readers are Luisa. All of us onlookers experiencing the passion at a remove.

***

If the things we put in parenthesis might be described as the things we can’t help but say (no matter how much they distract) then I wonder if all sentences shouldn’t be in parentheses. From a moment in Tomas Tranströmer’s poem “Baltics,” about his grandparents:

(We’re walking together. She’s been dead for thirty years.)

What is it about prose, especially my own, that’s begun to feel so leaden? And what is it about a line of poetry that’s like the fleet bite of a mosquito? That imperceptible surgical injection of the proboscis, in, out, finished—

(We’re walking together. She’s been

My eyes, as so often happens, wander off. The grief that’s called to the surface by someone else’s words. She used to wait for me when I’d drive down to Fall River those years I lived in Boston. I’d climb over the railing and come in through the sliding door without knocking. The sweet, pungent smell of that little apartment, a kind of sugary rot, and she’d rise from the couch happy to see me but at the same time pissed off at how late I am again. What, do I think do you think I have nothing better to do than lounge around the house and wait for you all day? Do you know how many plans I canceled? How many of these shriekers and potters I’ve had to put off so I could be available—and how these contradictory reactions didn’t cancel each other out but instead merged into a begrudging relief that I’d made it down here alive again. Help yourself to the half sandwich in the fridge, it’s tuna from Newport Creamery. Pretty good! And there are some of those shoestring potato chips you like.

We didn’t walk, we drove. All over Fall River. To the dressmaker, to the pharmacy, to the podiatrist. To the Chinese restaurant in the mall out by Airport Road. Even to the pool at her complex, which was just down the hill. We’d get in her Plymouth Sundance and drive. At the pool was a social club. She wouldn’t talk to her friends when I was with her. She could be haughty. I’d do laps in the little pool as best I could. She’d sit on the deck and read Anne Tyler. She said, Anne Tyler can tell a story. When was I going to learn to tell a story?

So you’ve met someone?

What makes you say that?

Maybe the clean shirt.

It’s that clean?

Wishful looking.

She volunteered in the hospital gift shop, a job she liked. She liked to bring a little joy to people. I sell some chocolate, a stuffed animal, she’d say. You’d think it wouldn’t mean much. When it was time for me to leave her, she’d hand me my hat. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

When I didn’t have a hat, she handed me one of hers. Here’s your hat…

In March of her last year, my mother brought her out to Chicago from Fall River. She was seventy-eight. (My mother went on paying the rent for her apartment even though we all knew she’d never make it back to Massachusetts.) She died in Chicago, a foreign city, at Rush Presbyterian–St. Luke’s in June 1995.

***

A Garielle Lutz story. It doesn’t take up a whole page. Like a tiny fortress. I’ve read it eleven times this morning. A dead sister’s phone number. Her brother keeps calling it, again and again. This was back when we punched in phone numbers, each and every time, punched in the numbers. Lutz compares the muscle memory of that repetition to haiku. What’s irrecoverable made tangible by the movement of fingers alone.

I mean, there was something physical about the way I kept ringing her up—

I’ve got my own numbers that no longer—

432-5181. 432-4474. 432-8719.

***

I’m reading on the porch of a rented house in the north end of Burlington. My mother is upstairs in a small bedroom, in a narrow bed, trying to sleep. Now she sleeps late. She never used to. Grief has tired her like few things ever have.

It’s after ten in June. The Air National Guard is flying training missions over Lake Champlain. These sleek black planes, their sonic boomings.

The house is across the street from a cemetery. Mismatched stones crowd the hillside. Pike, Dumas, Kane, McAuliffe, Dattilo, Greenough. Yesterday, wandering around up there, I came across blankets and a camping mattress unfurled at the foot of a grave. On the branch of a nearby tree hung a sweatshirt.

I’m three-quarters of the way through Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, past the point where the swath of pages I’ve read is thicker than what’s left. There’s a metaphor in my hand.

A family of British expatriates in Moscow before the revolution. In the opening sentence we learn that Frank’s wife, Nellie, has left him. She takes the children with her on a train heading west, but then changes her mind. During a stopover, Nellie sends the kids back to Moscow, back to Frank. In the second chapter, Frank arrives at the station to retrieve them. Fitzgerald describes the people Frank sees waiting around: “lost souls who haunt stations and hospitals in the hope of acquiring some purpose of their own in the presence of so much urgent business, other people’s partings, reunions, sickness and death.”

I’m thinking about other people’s partings when the front door slaps open and my mother, fully dressed and wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat, charges past me, off the porch, and onto the sidewalk, shouting at the sky, at all that deafening noisy, What the hell’s happening?

Peter Orner is the author of seven books, including Am I Alone Here?, Maggie Brown & Others, and Love and Shame and Love. He directs the creative writing program at Dartmouth College. This piece is adapted from Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin, which will be published by Catapult on October 11.

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