They call poison the typical method of murder for disgruntled wives so who was I to stray from convention? Sure, Henry had money and I wanted it, but it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. Money and independence does help though. How else is a woman supposed to get along in this country while Ike and every other goddamned fool I know has their knickers in a bunch about Sputnik? I did my time waitressing and I figured I’d let the younger broads tackle that noble profession for as long as they could handle it. I know better. Men are mostly saps when it comes down to it – at least the type of men who let themselves fall in love so completely. They meet a pretty lady – one that they like – and they promise her the moon, the stars, the treasures of the earth, and everything in between. A smart woman knows how to use that, but frankly in my case I was hardly dishonest – slightly deceiving? – Perhaps but hardly dishonest.
I told him the score the very first time I met him only he wasn’t paying attention. As usual, his mind drifted off into his own private thoughts and maybe he convinced himself that he heard what he wanted to hear. I was waitressing at a joint called Bob’s Grill, a diner in the Catskills, when I noticed his sorry blank eyes staring out the window. When I asked him if something was wrong, he rushed an apology at me, and when I insisted that no apology was necessary he found it to be the right occasion to blather on about the meaning of life and his disappointment in the life he found himself in – typical wealthy socialist guilt if you ask me. I listened, I endeared myself to him –batted my eyes at the right time and so forth- and before I knew it we were laying side by side beneath the stars in the dingy parking lot of Bob’s Grill. My life would never be the same.
“Ever feel like you’re living a life that isn’t meant to be yours?” he asked with that boyish whimsical smile of his.
He was wearing a collared white shirt beneath an expensive looking blue sweater. The fabric felt as soft as anything. He lacked the rugged look of the men I had been accustomed to flirting with. He came from good stock and there was no way of hiding it, try as he might. He just didn’t have the guts for it even if he wanted to pretend to be otherwise.
“There are worst things to be than a well-to-do young man philosophizing with his waitress in a diner,” I replied.
“Oh, I know that. You think because I come from wealth that I should be happy? It doesn’t work that way. I’ve been reading Nietzsche and he says essentially that God is dead and life is meaningless – that Nihilism has prevailed in the modern age. For you perhaps it means nothing but for me – well- I consider myself a contemplative person.”
“I figured you would,” I told him, “You do seem like someone who thinks an awful lot.”
“I do. It’s like I find myself living in age where my life is of little consequence.”
“If you find your life to be of little consequence then I could hardly imagine your opinion of an inconsequential young girl like me.”
“But that’s just the thing – I look at you and I know that you are important – perhaps more important than me. Is that not at least one aspect of the true nature of love?”
“Love? Why we hardly know each other. You should be more careful about who you say such things to.”
The conversation started to go in circles until it began to get late, but I set him straight as I stood up to go back to my car. I told him, and I remember that night clear as day. I’ll never forget the words I used because like my husband, I also thought a lot about the important matters of life. I had also spent many a night pondering love and the meaning of it all usually before drifting off to sleep in bed and each and every time I thought about these matters I had arrived at the same conclusion.
I said, “You want to know what I think?”
“More than anything,” he said.
“I think that I want to live alone and I want to die alone because in the end we all die alone. Even those seemingly lucky enough to die at a tender old age with loved ones beside them on their deathbeds holding their hands – even those people die alone. Death is a solitary experience and I believe life is meant to be one as well- at least my life anyways. What good is it to waste your years pining for the approval and validation of a beloved when all they have to offer you are decades worth of grief, aggravation, frustration, and disappointment. You live your life to marry and grow old with someone and really what do you get out of it? Companionship and to me companionship is worthless. People use it as a panacea when it’s really a lousy substitute for joy. If you ask me, cherish and enjoy your solitude because truly that solitude is worth more than anything in the world anyone could ever offer you.”
Now if that doesn’t sound like a gal shooting a man down in flames I don’t know what else would. I spoke to him straight and honestly giving him the best possible explanation of my own philosophy. The last thing I expected was that he would ignore just about everything I said and lean in to kiss me. I pretended to like it. After all, a young man with money is hard to find.
So, all the expected things happened. I met his family and acted the part of the daintiest damsel amused by dinner parties, flower arrangements, hosting, and all the nauseating things wealthy people put themselves through. Instead of good stock, however, I learned that my wealthy husband came from a long line of inbreeding, pampering, and devastating family secrets that would no doubt crush the entire lineage if these secrets ever saw the light of day. I played my part and listened to the gossip preparing for the inevitable day that he would make me his wife.
After months of courting, the proposal came as we rode in a carriage through Central Park and I said all the right things and made all the right facial expressions and embraced him in just the way he liked and I also let him kiss me in the exact manner he liked and let him linger and dote on me for however long he wanted. I suppose most women would be flattered and happy to attain this kind of attention but I found the whole thing intolerable.
We married and on the wedding night when it was no longer necessary to remain chaste, I pushed him off with all my might. He was such a fragile thing, my husband, that a heavy wind could carry him away. When he asked what was wrong, I reminded him of our initial conversation and told him that I intended to remain in a marriage of convenience with him. We would sleep in separate rooms and that we would leave each other in peace to each do as we respectfully pleased. It was that moment when I saw the look of utter defeat in his face. It was that moment when I sense that he had truly lost the will to live. I kindly reminded him that I knew all the family secrets and besides that his family would be embarrassed by the prospect of divorce and that I doubted that neither he, his mother, nor his sisters were prepared for a lifetime of shame and ostracization.
He reluctantly agreed to let me have my way as he had no other choice and we spent several years at a kind polite distance from each other. Neither one of us had cause or reason to be hostile, and I suppose I could have gone on just the same with having the freedom to move about as I pleased and the money to go where I wanted. I could spend entire days reading my books without being disturbed for meals at someone else’s convenience. We didn’t have pesky petulant children to tend to and the convenience of our arrangement suited us both. He was free to stay out at his clubs all day and go off writing his dissertations on philosophy impressing his friends and family, and I was content to often arrive at an empty house and enjoy my much valued peace, quiet, and solitude. There was an understanding and that’s how I preferred it
Then, one evening he came to my room and I could tell something was wrong as I saw him choking back his tears. He told me his mother had died. She had been sick for many years but the woman, fate, happenstance, or coincidence decided that that night was the end. She left this world knowing of our arrangement but with the comforting knowledge that her precious family secrets were all safe. As Henry was about to leave, I called him back. I don’t know what came over me. Perhaps a sudden wave of compassion hit me; perhaps my composure waned in the wake of despair; but more likely I sympathized with poor Henry because my own mother died when I was young before I ever knew what warmth and compassion could possibly be. I saw Henry there with that dim feeble awkward look on his face and saw a wounded bird. I grabbed him by his collar, kissed him, and hugged him letting him collapse in my arms. I even let myself cry as well.
That’s when things changed. That’s when the arrangement changed. It happened without much resistance from me. Before I knew it, we began sharing our meals together every day, going out socially together, laughing giddily with one another, sharing private indulgences, affectionate glances, and ultimately sharing our bed. Over the course of the next 2 years, we became a real married couple doing everything together and my previously private and independent life withered away to nearly nothingness. I was actually really quite happy. We both were.
Christmas came and I found myself with child, and just as I had forgotten my old attitudes, I found them making a sudden and unexpected return. Henry was preparing plans for the nursery deciding where things could go. The man couldn’t assemble a crib if his life depended on it so he brought in an old school friend to help him. The baby would arrive any day now, and it was better to have the crib ready than not, and then it hit me. With the pain of my first contraction I knew I had unwittingly surrendered my principles. Not only had I succumbed to a potential lifetime of living under the thumb of a man, but my child – perhaps a girl just like I was – would be forced to carry on the cycle of subversion of the will, subversion of independent thought and space. I had not only allowed my own solitude to be corrupted I was now bringing forth a new life with its own needs and its own empty void of dependence. All my previous aversions to social living flooded back to me with this intense torrent of pain, and I despaired. In my heart I knew nothing but despair.
Anyone who gives their heart completely is an utter fool. I know this because I became one. I hadn’t set out to be but that’s what I became. I needn’t have experienced the entire spectrum of life’s disappointments to know where my life with Henry would end up. He was never good-looking and that naïve smile combined with his contemplative nature would grow wary on me. His body would bloat and become frail with age and he would eventually become a burden as I would as well to him. I had enough worries contemplating how to care for myself without having to worry about the needs of another. I suppose it was good fortune that our baby was stillborn. Henry and I went through the motions of mourning.
I kept up appearances with him as I planned his demise. I decided poison would be the best and least detectable manner. It would be a simple matter of slipping it into his food when he wasn’t looking. He’d conveniently die and I would inherit his share of the family fortune and that would be that. This time I would remain resolute and resist any urge towards over-sentimentality.
On the third day of administering the poison he caught me. He took hold of my wrist as I was about to do the deed and asked me what I was doing. There was nothing more to do but tell the truth and hope for mercy.
He asked, “Those attitudes you claimed to have when I first met you – the ones that kept us apart early on in our marriage – have those points of view returned?”
“They have indeed.”
“Then would you truly like to be alone without me?”
I told him, “I would.”
With that he disappeared into our bedroom, closed the heavy door, and truly left me. Through the closed door I heard him yell out one last time, “I love you, Laura!” Then, an awkward silence. Then, a single gunshot. Henry was gone.
The freedom I had always craved – the independence I desired and now have – if I allow myself to exist thoughtlessly I can just about enjoy it. It’s when the silence hits me, stuns me, and shocks me that I can’t help thinking that the emptiness of it all is ultimately unbearable. Time drags on and all the comforts I can afford do nothing but refuse to shorten the length of days. I often find myself thinking back on that very first night I met him and that high minded philosophical conversation we shared. I find myself reliving that moment again and again only it wasn’t so much the conversation but the kiss. When I remember it now the words we both said become meaningless and nonsensical. When I remember it now, this time I find myself enjoying that first kiss. That’s how I choose to remember it now and that’s how it shall forever be.