Why bother going to bed if you won’t be able to sleep? And yet at about eleven I went—what else could I do? From the bed I could see Sara at the bathroom mirror, rubbing almond-scented lotion on her legs, and once more I admired the beauty of her dark skin, the loveliness of her back. Her body hadn’t changed much with age. The telephone, which she’d carried into the bathroom, rang, and she put on her robe, answered it, and spoke for a long time in a very low voice with the boys. She had a deep voice, the same color as her skin, and it could take on many shades of tenderness. I shut my eyes and thought about the pain that was living inside me at that moment and surrounding me like the flames in paintings of purgatory. I kept them shut a long time, observing the intense grief that engulfed me, and what I saw in my head was a fifty-nine-year-old man, intelligent-looking and polite, though somewhat distant—me, walking slowly at night, as if nothing were going on, engulfed in flames, down an empty street on the Lower East Side; and that same man, also engulfed in flames, in East River Park at six on a summer evening, perhaps smoking, leaning on the railing to look down at the river, amid pigeons pecking at the ground around him and seagulls and clouds floating in the air.
Affliction is not motionless; it is fluid and unstable, and its flames, which are not orange and red but blue, and sometimes a horrible pale green, torment you sometimes on one side of the body and sometimes on the other, sometimes forcefully gripping your whole body until you find yourself silently screaming like that Munch painting where a person is wailing on a bridge. Physical pain is no more stable, according to the descriptions I’ve read and heard from Jacobo and poor Michael O’Neal. The metaphors they use are intense. “It’s as if they were taking a saw and slowly sawing at my pelvis, Mr. David,” Michael would say. “And sometimes it’s like my legs are frozen and at the same time covered in burning coals. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s really worth being alive if it’s going to hurt this bad. What do you think?” And our poor Jacobo talked about how sometimes it was as if somebody were crushing his toes in a vise. Or punching him endlessly in the stomach. In their descriptions, the two of them almost inevitably reached the very limits of language itself and arrived at the sort of pain for which “indescribable” is the last word uttered before all words have been exhausted and there remains only the mute brutality of reality.
And yet I have known—all of us have known—joy, even happiness. The harmony of the world is not smudged or sullied even in moments of the most awful horror. Goya knew that, and Bosch. When Sara died I wanted to die too, of course, and contemplated suicide. During the weeks that followed I often imagined going to one of the beautiful misty cliffs in this area and tossing myself off it. Two bounces on two boulders, and someone my age would have shattered to bits. Like the romantic old fool I am, I would have put on my good suit, the one I wear for awards ceremonies, and I would have waited, neatly dressed, and dead, and dirty, and sprawling, for the vultures to begin to trace their graceful halo above me.
Fifty years of sensual delight and spiritual joy—here I am forced by language, which is inherently clunky, to describe as two separate things something that in its simplest, purest form is only one—with a woman who could as easily live in tenderness and pleasure as she could create gardens of heliconias and ferns and palms and little groves of flowering sietecueros trees, and pools and lily pads.
There was a reason I wanted to jump.